Surviving a dark Canadian chapter

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Unlike a lot of 10-year-old boys, Murdock Sewap was looking forward to going to school. It was August of 1958 and, while well-educated in living off the land, the aboriginal youth had never set foot inside a formal classroom. School may have sounded intimidating if not for the strong friendship he had forged with a boy who already attended the one-room schoolhouse in Denare Beach. Living with his family on an island outside the village, Sewap assumed that when he entered public education that year, he would be joining his pal in Denare Beach. But on this otherwise ordinary summer day, he was about to learn that society had other plans. A boat pulled up to the island. Out stepped a man who reminded the youngster of a German officer he had seen in a war movie. He cut a dominant figure with his hands on his hips, his brush cut giving way to an intent expression. The English words that came from the man's mouth could be comprehended by Sewap's bilingual parents, George and Margaret Rose, but were nothing but gibberish to their son. "I was standing off to the side and he said something to them," recalls Sewap. "He kept pointing at me as he was talking and I saw my mom and dad with their heads down, standing side by side. They didn't say anything. I saw my mom crying and I thought, 'Boy, this guy must be terrible, the way he made my mom cry.'" The Cree translation of what had transpired hit Sewap with the force of a freight train. "My mom told me, 'You have to leave us,'" he explains. "And I said, 'Why?' 'Because if you don't, see that man that came here, he said he's gonna put us in jail.'" Threats of his brothers being seized were also made. Sewap was just a child, but he knew he had no choice but to go. What he did not know was that he was about to step directly into one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history. Guy Hill Residential School was deceptively situated in one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Manitoba. The rich scenery at Clearwater Lake, 30 kilometres north of The Pas, is nothing short of breathtaking. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church, which ran the school, was tasked with assimilating aboriginal students into mainstream society by giving them a good education. Unofficially, in actions that were overlooked or minimized for years, physical and emotional scars were inflicted on a generation of victims whose only crime was their genealogy. For the next seven years, excluding summers, Guy Hill is where Sewap would live, eat, study and pray with dozens of other native kids from across the northern parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. What immediately struck the newcomer was the ban on Cree, the only language he had ever spoken. English was the language of the majority, and here the majority would always rule. Guy Hill staff applied a game-like approach to blocking Cree, granting students a set number of tokens. Students who heard a classmate speak Cree were to ask for one of the guilty party's tokens. At the end of the year, the kids with the most tokens would win prizes. Evidently this did not sufficiently meet the objective set out, so harsher measures were thrown into the mix. "When we spoke our language, we were punished," says Sewap. "Privileges were taken away or sometimes you got a rap in the mouth." The restriction on traditional language was hardly the only strict decree. Guy Hill was full of them, and the penalties for breaking them could be brutal. On one occasion, Sewap was called over to talk to a supervisor for a minor transgression Ð Sewap thinks he may have flicked a toothpick on the floor. Sewap made the mistake of greeting a friend who walked by, prompting the supervisor to issue a severe reminder of who warranted the youth's attention. "He jabbed me with his stick right in my chest," he says. "I didn't realize how serious it was (until) I started seeing blood in here," he adds, gesturing toward the centre of his chest, where a visible scar lingers. The supervisor's stick was in fact a commonly-deployed weapon within the hazardous hallways of Guy Hill. It even carried a nickname. "He'd rap you with that, and that hurt," Sewap recalls. "I saw kids cry many times from (him) doing that. "Anything, it doesn't matter what it was, he'd use force on us." Guy Hill was all about conformity. Sewap even sustained blows to the knuckles with a yardstick when he tried writing with his dominant hand, the left one. There were other times, and for other reasons not always apparent to Sewap, that he would be struck on the head, slapped on the ears or spanked. And it happened to his schoolmates just as frequently. Even if students could withstand the physical maltreatment, they still had to contend with the emotional kind. See 'Teachers' on pg. Continued from pg. "Sometimes you were put in front of all the students (and the teacher would say), 'Look at this stupid boy or stupid girl' or they'll start calling you down or just laugh at you," says Sewap. "In the classroom, we were asked questions and if you didn't answer right, 90 per cent of the time, it doesn't matter who it was, the teachers would laugh at your answer. And you know, I noticed after that that students would just clam up. They wouldn't answer nor ask questions." There was a self-righteous air about the faculty at Guy Hill. Time and again they would drill home the notion that white society had done a favour for these children, liberating them from their backward ways. "They used to call us 'savages' and 'heathens' and 'unbelievers,'" Sewap says. "There's so many things that they told us to our faces and we'd sit there and listen and...you get, not emotional, but you feel anger." At least some of the disciplinary methods practiced at Guy Hill existed at regular schools, so it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether the accepted boundaries of the day were crossed. No one, however, can downplay the most horrifying aspect of Sewap's time at Guy Hill. "Sometimes I'd have nightmares about that," he says, referring to the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a male faculty member. "I didn't realize this person that did this to us was what you'd call a predator today." Sewap still has trouble talking about that experience with most people. But the fact that he is not alone Ð sexual abuse is alleged by many former residential school students Ð brings a degree of solace. "Sometimes I'll meet a friend or somebody that went through the same thing I did, and we talk about it," he says. "Now I feel I can talk about it openly with a person who had the same experience." Sewap spent his years at Guy Hill with a single-minded determination to get out. He skipped ahead a couple of grades knowing that the sooner he fulfilled the academic requirements, the sooner he could leave. But there were times Ð many times, in fact Ð when he considered taking a short cut out. Running away. Going back home. The thought was so irresistible that once, when he was 10 or 11, he very nearly fled. Only the words of his cousin, a fellow student who believed the two had been sent to Guy Hill for good reason, made him stay. When he was found to have attempted an escape, Sewap's head was shaved. It was not until after he left Guy Hill that Sewap realized that what he had endured was not a routine part of education. He was just a kid on a trapline when he was uprooted, and he lacked the barometer for knowing what was customary in this strange new world. So when that supervisor jabbed him in the chest and drew blood, Sewap did what seemed normal. The child took it like a man. "It didn't bother me, not until later on in years when I started thinking, 'What a kind of discipline to be getting at school,'" he says. "You'd see those priests and brothers praying in church. You know, they're sitting there with their hands clasped and they've got their heads down and they're talking to the Almighty. And yet, what they did to us..." By 1965, Sewap was a young man of 17 with a Grade 9 education. He had gone as far as he could at Guy Hill, so that fall he travelled to Prince Albert with the goal of earning a high school diploma. When he walked through the doors, he was met by a priest with his hands clasped. Then came a nun. The horrors of Guy Hill came flashing back. "I just turned around and I walked away and I didn't go back," Sewap says. A few years later, Sewap enrolled at a different school to upgrade. Even with more education and more time to mature, his time at Guy Hill would continue to shape his life. He lost many jobs over his unwillingness to listen to authority figures. To him, they were cut from the same cloth as the residential school faculty. "Somebody telling me what to do, I thought, 'Who the hell is this guy? What the hell is he trying to do to me?'" Sewap says. As a young man, Sewap endured a failed marriage. He even fantasized about walking into the bush one day with a gun, never to come out alive. He credits his faith in God Ð a faith that, ironically enough, was strengthened at Guy Hill Ð for seeing him through the bleakest days. Sewap eventually found his place in life. He remarried, and he found that he fit into the workforce best when he could do his job alone, undisturbed. He would spend decades working at mineral exploration sites, staking claims, cooking meals or cutting lines. "Nobody bothered me. I worked," he says. Murdock Sewap has lived through things few Canadians can imagine. His own country tore him from his family and turned his childhood into a barrage of humiliation and intimidation. He had been out of residential school for 43 years before the government finally apologized in 2008. Yet today, as the 61-year-old sits at the kitchen table of his modest home on the Amiskosakahikan First Nation at Denare Beach, he is not bitter. No matter how bad things get, he tells "the guy up there" how grateful he is. He still enjoys working despite problems with his feet, and his young grandchildren are the apple of his eye. He remains baffled, more than anything, about why residential schools existed in the first place. Many of his fellow survivors saw them as a way of robbing aboriginal people of their traditional way of life. For Sewap, Guy Hill Residential School initially succeeded in stripping away his culture. But not any longer. "I'm trying to give (our culture) back to my children and grandchildren," he says. "It's up to us older people to teach our children the old way of life. It's something that they've got to pass on and on and on. And hopefully it never dies."

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