We’ve heard about residential schools but find it hard to understand how the system transformed into one of widespread institutional abuse. At the turn of the century, the federal government decided that aboriginal children in Canada’s north children should receive a public school education. Because the population in that region was spread over vast distances, a residential school system was developed where children were taken from their homes to live at these facilities during the school year. The responsibility for operating these schools was handed over to mainstream religious denominations including the Anglican and Catholic churches. This meant that young children were torn away from their families and then in many cases exposed to horrendous forms of emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. It was not until quite recently that the churches and the federal government finally acknowledged these crimes that were perpetrated against the entire youth population of the north. Investigations into the cultural genocide of the First Nations Peoples’ in the north continue to this day, but few realize that white children of the north were also swept into this system.
For several years in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s, three white children were immersed in that culture in Saint Anne`s residential school located outside Fort Albany, Ontario. At the time, their father was Hudson’s Bay Post Manager at Fort Albany and this was the nearest school, located five miles from their home. The siblings were the only white children in the school at that time, and together they were eye witnesses to the clash of very different civilizations, and to some unbelievable events. Ron Gosbee was one of those children and has decided to describe his memories and those of his two sisters in a memoir. In it, he describes the attempted genocide of an entire people, through assimilation of their children at the hands of a few leaders of the local Catholic Church.
This particular institution has been much in the news, due to an extensive police investigation which resulted in the trials and convictions of six former school staff. Last summer it was in the news again as survivors continued to press for the release of documents held by the OPP that back up their claims of abuse. Perhaps those news items provided the impetus to Gosbee to tell his part of the story.
It has been a tough haul, dredging up these memories, discerning the truth from some haunting and disturbing images. It is clear Ron is still sorting and sifting, with gaps to fill and more questions to answer, if he can. While the siblings have been able to compare their memories to confirm specific events and perceptions about individuals, the school was segregated, so Ron was separated from his sisters living with the other boys. But overtures to native student survivors have not been reciprocated, perhaps because his story is not theirs: he was with them but not truly one of them. That also stings, because while he instinctively knew he was somehow different from his classmates, even at his tender age from 7 to 0 he felt his identity was being stripped away. In 2002, the school itself was deliberately burned to the ground, removing the possibility of roaming the buildings to recover lost experiences. For Ron`s younger sister, that was a relief, but for Ron it is an unspeakable loss.
These siblings were witness to events that are part of our history. They knew little children who disappeared and whose parents would never know what happened to them. After being ripped from their homes and plunked into these unsympathetic institutions, some became so homesick that they often tried to run away. But their homes weren’t a few miles away: they were many hundreds of miles away. After failed attempts to find home, occasionally their corpses would return to the school on toboggans to be buried on site, if the runaways were found at all. At those times, all students would be called to witness their return as a stern warning of the consequences of trying to escape.
Ron and his sisters were fortunate in that their family home was only a few miles away- a few miles through heavy bush. Because there were no roads, travel during most of the school year happened on dog sled. Their mother would visit regularly, and they had the welcome chance to return home for the occasional visit, but that was never enough. Exasperated, one day the three children took off on their own for home, travelling on foot through the wild wooded terrain at night to the sound of wolves all around them. Miraculously, they made it, but their exhilaration was short-lived: the nuns arrived the next morning to take them back to school, advising the runaways that their route was covered by Polar bear tracks, indicating they had been followed. The children would not make a second attempt.
The memories are not all bad- there was fresh bread and comradery amongst the children, and not all authority figures were unkind: there were thoughtful nuns and staff, but surprising to Ron was the abusive attitude exhibited by some of the aboriginal staff on children of their own people.
Fortunately for Ron and his sisters, after several years the family relocated and Ron moved on to a more normal life where he completed degrees at the Ontario College of Art, another in Psychology from the University of Guelph and a Masters Certificate in Management from Royal Roads university, and later launched one of the first digital printing companies in Canada based in Toronto. Last fall, he relocated to Millbrook at the suggestion of his good friends there, where he has found the opportunity to slow down a bit. When he`s not providing technical and creative support to local companies, he takes the opportunity to get down to some serious writing.
What does Gosbee hope to gain through this memoir? Acknowledgement. Like his schoolmate Edmund Metatawabin, he wants to be heard, and to be believed. He wants to see the government take responsibility for the injustice; he wants the system that allowed it to happen in the first place to be changed; and to help raise public awareness about the issue. It will help him believe it will never happen again.
By Karen Graham