Some teachers and workers went to residential schools with sinister motives and almost no fear of reprimand. “Missionary bodies all too often were unwilling or unable to weed out – and keep out – staff who were proven to be guilty of misconduct,” writes Miller in Shingwauk’s Vision. There were even cases of people later convicted of sexual assault being kept on staff well after the time when their abusing actions were first suspected. Derek Clarke, who abused children at the St. George’s School in Lytton, was eventually dismissed, but not before he was given a written recommendation in 1973 by then-principal Tony Harding, that helped secure Clarke a job at another residential school.
Alfred Scow is a retired provincial court judge and member of the Kwakwara’wakw nation who attended the Anglican-run school at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. His first experience at Indian residential school was downright idyllic. “I was not taken away to school kicking and screaming. My parents wanted me to have an education, and the only available, affordable school was the Indian residential school,” says Scow, who was nine when he started classes in 1936. “They voluntarily enrolled me and my sister Joyce at Alert Bay.”
Scow’s first impression of a place where picnics and other leisurely outdoor activities were the norm was shattered by about the second week. That was when the bulk of the children arrived and the administration got strict – very strict. “I thought I had landed in a great place, but then September rolled around and the school filled up with 200 [other] Indian students. Then it was a totally new regime. We lined up for everything – for the staff to tell us something, for church, for bedtime. Everything was different: the food, the language, the dress. Family relationships disappeared. I saw Joyce mostly at mealtimes on the girl’s side of the dining room.”
The students at St. Michael’s attended school for a half day and did farm chores the other half. Scow’s first task was picking up leaves from the sports field, which has maple trees nearby. He recalls that he wore a uniform that included short pants, and that when he slacked off the job, he felt a “terrible stinging pain” across his calves. “The vice principal struck me with a big chain right across the calves and told me, ‘If you don’t hurry up you’ll get some more.’ You learned pretty fast that you did what you were told.”
This was a completely different life than the one Scow had been accustomed to as a boy in the tiny community of Gwayasdums at Gilford Island, some 200 miles up the coast from Vancouver. “There was almost total freedom,” he recalls. “I would play in the woods or in my canoe. I remember spearing crabs and fish from a canoe that I made.” Discipline there came in the form of being made to feel shame. Scow felt this when he returned from a childhood fishing expedition in nearby waters. He had killed more than the family could eat and was told that he was wrong to take so many fish from the river. Residential school was a far cry from this kind of education, so it was not surprising that Scow ran away from the school on one occasion. His mother’s response upon seeing her son appear on the doorstep was to feed him and take him back to school.
“The school was not a bed of pain,” says Scow.
“I felt it was healthy. In retrospect, my main complaint was the subliminal message that our culture was not as good as the white culture.” The lawyer, former judge and son of a chief reminds his interviewer that the Indian Act at that time did not even recognize Natives as people, and prohibited traditional Native religious and cultural ceremonies. “Both my grandparents went to jail for holding potlatches,” adds Scow proudly.