Mixed experiences at Indian residential school

Bishop Lydia Mamakwa points to the location of Poplar Hill residential school on a map of Canada. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published July 14, 2011

Inuvik- Attending an Indian residential school gave Lydia Mamakwa the faith that led to her calling as an Anglican priest, and later, as area bishop of northern Ontario in the diocese of Keewatin. But, at one point, it had also left her confused about her identity as a native person.

“My experience (at residential school) was more good than bad,” said Bishop Mamakwa, who attended the Poplar Hill School in northwestern Ontario, which was administered by the Mennonite-associated Northern Gospel Light Mission.


Bishop spoke to the Anglican Journal about her experiences at the school, when she participated in the National Northern event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) here June 27 to July 1.

“The good thing about it was learning about the Bible. We had Bible teaching every day, and we learned a lot of hymns. We also learned practical stuff like sewing, knitting, cooking and home nursing,” said Bishop Mamakwa.

The bad part, which Bishop Mamakwa said she only came to grips with later on in life, was “we were made to feel that our identity was not good.”

She recalled arriving at Poplar Hill in 1964, at the age of 15, and being sat down by the head matron to go over school policies, one of which was not to speak Oji-Cree, her native language. On her first day at school, she had put on the new clothes that her mother had packed for her, but was made to take them off. “I was heading downstairs and I saw the matron. She tells me right away in a sharp voice, ‘Go back, take off those clothes and put on the ones we gave you,’ she said. “They wanted us to dress like them…(they) wore floral-coloured long skirts and leotards.”

One time, she said, she was caught speaking Oji-Cree and was taken to a big dining hall where she was made to write a hundred times on the blackboard, “I will not speak my language again.”

That they would be forbidden “to be who we were meant to be” was “a shock for me,” said Bishop Mamakwa. “Even at my early teens, my language seemed beautiful to me. I wanted to speak it.”

There had also been “invasion of privacy,” she said, recalling how her letters home and how packages they received from home would be censored. There were also occasions when her suitcase was pried open and things were removed. “That made me feel [I was not] seen as a worthwhile person for somebody to go through [my] stuff,” said Bishop Mamakwa.

Bishop Mamakwa said she “learned to live with it,” but there were some experiences that left her confused. One time the supervisors took students to a picnic and some of them had caught some fish and they were asked to cook it in an open pit and to make bannock (traditional native bread). “I was shocked that we were allowed to do that. I was confused and I remember I didn’t want to participate in that activity because I was afraid that we would be punished,” she said.

She overcame her fear and confusion with the help of her parents. “They were very strong in their faith in God and they told me that your faith will carry you through,” she said. “I had long talks with my mom after I came back from school and I was so confused. She was the one who set me in the right direction-that I could take out what was good from that school.”

Last year, Mennonite Church Canada (MCC) passed a resolution acknowledging the involvement of Mennonites “in the falling of the Christian Church” through the residential schools. Neither the MCC nor its predecessor, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, operated any residential schools, but some congregations and individuals had been involved not just in Poplar Hill but with day schools and children’s homes for aboriginal children. However, only Poplar Hill was included in the list of schools listed in the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Bishop Mamakwa said she was glad that she participated in the TRC event. She said she came for herself and for other former students. “I felt it was important to be here for them as I can identify with the stories, the emotions, the feelings that they are feeling,” she said.

How did she feel as she sat listening to the testimonies of former students? “Depending on the severity of the punishment or discipline imposed on them, sometimes I found it hard to listen to the stories and sometimes, I asked myself, ‘How could they do this to a child?'” she said.

But there were moments that she also found uplifting, including the testimony of a former student who went through horrific abuse at a school and said he was able to overcome the odds because of his faith. “That’s what I would like to see for the former students. If they can find hope, faith and trust in Jesus, and have a relationship with him, they will get healing from there,” she said.


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