The letter arrived at Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School on the Blackfoot Reserve, in early August, 1966. I had been offered a position as the Senior Boys’ Supervisor at Stringer Hall, the Anglican Residential Hostel in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, for the 1966-67 school year. I was looking forward to having a job that would help me understand indigenous students better.
Two years earlier, in 1964, I began studying to be a teacher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. After completing my first year, I joined a group of other young student teachers in a new cross-cultural program preparing us to teach in northern and reserve schools. A requirement of this program was to complete an internship, and I was assigned to the Blackfoot Reserve (now called the Siksika Nation), east of Calgary, from the beginning of May to the end of August. I worked in the office helping Siksika staff members, registered reserve children for kindergarten, acted as a truancy officer, helped local ranchers bail hay and brand calves, and many other things that would enhance my understanding of aboriginal people.
During that summer I boarded at Old Sun. When I arrived in May, there were Siksika students in residence, but after the end of June there were only five people living there: the Anglican priest, three young orphaned Cree girls from Hobbema (a sad situation), and me. Mrs. Red Gun came in every day and made meals for us and cared for the three little girls.
Unfortunately, at the end of July, Indian Affairs had not paid me the stipend promised, so I decided to work for a year before returning to university. Fortunately, I was paid in November and I paid the debt I had for room and board at Old Sun.
The Residential Supervisor’s position at Stringer Hall was exactly what I needed to expand my understanding of aboriginal people — so I thought at the time. It was a fascinating experience, and I took copious notes and photos of the things that happened, all of which have been filed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In late August, 1966, I boarded a DC-4 at the municipal airport in Edmonton, and 12 hours later landed in Inuvik after stopping at many small communities along the Mackenzie River. I was met by the Hostel Administrator, Rev. Holman, and we drove to Inuvik, where I settled into my room at Stringer Hall.
The next day, I toured the hostel and was told what the job entailed: caring for 85 senior boys, from 12 years of age to about 21, in three dorms, for 6 days a week, and being on duty for about 22 hours a day. Most days I did not need to look after the boys during school hours, but if students were too sick to go to school but not sick enough to go to the infirmary, they were in the dorms and I was responsible for them.
Within a few days, students began arriving. Some came by aircraft from small coastal communities — Tuktoyaktuk, Sachs Harbour, and Cambridge Bay, for example — and others came by boat or aircraft from communities along the Mackenzie River, such as Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Fort Good Hope. In the far North, all students, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, went to residential school if they resided in small communities without day schools. By the beginning of September, when classes began at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School, there were 280 students in residence: 73% Inuit, 16% Dene, and 12% Caucasian or Metis.
Many of the children arrived at the hostel wearing the same institutional clothing they wore when they went home in the spring, not having bathed or changed in a couple of months. Some children had been standing in smudge fires trying to keep the hordes of bugs off them. Even so, a number of children arrived with infected insect bites in their scalps, and others had ear infections so bad that pus was running down their necks. Fortunately, Stringer Hall had a young nursing sister, Ms. Rosalind Malick, who had just arrived from London, England. She treated these children with great compassion and effective antibiotics.
In early December, when the sun had already sunk below the southern horizon, a senior boy said that he was too sick to get up for school. Some boys, of course, would feign illness during these dark days so they could get a day off from school, but this young fellow was not one of them. I helped him climb the stairs to the infirmary, where our nursing sister assessed him and quickly made arrangements for him to be admitted to the local hospital. His appendix had ruptured and it was removed in emergency surgery. A week later, he was back in residence; if he had been out on the trap line with his parents, he would have surely died.
For many children, the time they spent in Stringer Hall was the only time they slept in a bed of their own. In fact, some of them had been physically and sexually abused in their home communities, and residential school saved some of them from continued abuse.
At Stringer Hall, two of the six supervisors were young Inuit women, Annie and Lucy, who spoke to the young Inuit children in their mother tongue. Mrs. Thomas, a Dene woman, also lived in the hostel with her 4 year old daughter. She was the seamstress who made parkas and mukluks for the students.
I fondly remember the young Inuit children coming to my room on Saturday afternoons to take Ms. Malick and me for walks. Often, we would climb the hill behind the hostel so the children could slide down the snow-covered road on cardboard boxes. Other times, we walked out on the ice of the Mackenzie River, keeping off the dog sled trails used by people going to trap lines, hunting camps, and traveling to other communities. The Inuit children knew how dangerous a dog team could be because they all knew people who had been attacked by dogs. During that winter a young child was killed by a dog team in Fort McPherson.
It is true that some children were abused in residential schools, both by other students and by supervisors. All people who brutalized children should be punished for their crimes, and so should administrators from both the churches and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, who covered up these crimes.
However, most of the people working in the residential schools, at least those I knew, wanted to help the children receive a good education preparing them for the modern world. Most of these people also wanted to fulfill their Christian calling to help the poor, tend to the weak, and treat the sick. Forty-nine years have slipped away since I spent that eventful year in Stringer Hall. In writing this story, I reviewed the photographs of the students and I still fondly remember many of their names and the communities they came from. It was an experience — a positive one at that — that I have not forgotten.