Too much for some to bear

Published May 2, 2000

Boys pull a wagon at Bishop Horden School.

Ben Pratt pursued justice through the legal system, less out of malevolence than because he saw no other logical route. Eventually, he won a settlement as part of a civil suit, which came in the wake of a criminal conviction filed against one of his abusers. He is now in the midst of a second case against another alleged assailant.

When pressed about his legal battles, Pratt, who regularly sees a clinical psychologist, admits that dealing with lawyers and judges might not always be in his best interest, given that healing is what he craves, and this will not likely come via the adversarial court system. That said, the legal route is a path he is entitled to take. "I suppose I don’t have anything else to do," says the jack-of-all-trades, who concentrates on plumbing and carpentry work. "It’s not like the money will make me happy or make me feel better, but I might as well get something for what those bastards did to me," Pratt adds, saying he spent all the money he received after the first trial (as part of the settlement he cannot disclose the amount, although published reports put it at $46,000). He paid off his debt at the general store, sank thousands into a failed store of his own, bought Christmas presents, and spent almost $5,000 on new kitchen cupboards. Pratt suspects he will spend as freely the second time around if he wins this current case.

As with the abusive act itself, there is a certain degree of shame attached to cash settlements awarded in such cases. "Around here it’s called ‘arse money.’ It’s supposed to be dirty," says Pratt, who believes that such taunts often come from people who have suffered abuse themselves and are simply hiding behind catcalls rather than face their own demons. "I laughed and made fun of others, until it got to my door," admits the man whose residential-school experience came back to haunt him not as a nocturnal image that startled him from his sleep, but in the form of people on the reserve going door-to-door asking who had been abused at Gordon’s. When faced with the question, Pratt made the toughest decision of his life, and told his well-kept secret. By his own estimation, he is feeling more empowered and in control – even if his emotions still run high on occasion.

But for every Ben Pratt, there is a man or woman who will not, or cannot, step forward and revisit the horror they endured as children. Some simply choose to remain silent, while others put guns to their heads or ropes around their necks. Nothing illustrates the despair some former residential-school students feel like the phone call Pratt received awhile back. It was a Tuesday night, and his cousin, a grown man and fellow resident of Gordon’s, was on the other end of the line, crying. Between sobs, he told of his abusive past and the taunts and criticism from those who claimed to be friends, but who now simply made fun of him. It was all too much to bear, he said. Pratt tried to reassure him that things would get better. You must be strong and not walk away from this fight, Pratt said. His cousin said he would try, then hung up. But he couldn’t do what Pratt begged of him. Instead, he walked down to a nearby set of train tracks. Just before a locomotive whipped by, he stepped on to the tracks – to his death, his Creator, and the possibility of peace.

When Pratt finishes telling this story his eyes overflow with tears, and his ballcap is a crinkled mass of black cotton. "I wish I could write," he says, wiping his eyes. I attempt to be encouraging and supportive, assuring him that he can write down his story if he simply takes the time to do so. Pratt looks at me. "I am illiterate," says the graduate of Grade 6 at residential school. Pratt doesn’t give me a chance to apologize before he continues. "If I could write, I would tell everyone what happened to me. I have even come up with a name for my story. I’d call it Number 38 Speaking Out."


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