Fifty-two years ago, on Easter Weekend, I witnessed something that would change my life. I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t understand what I saw but I knew it wasn’t what it appeared.
It was my first time attending the Totem soccer tournament in Victoria. It was Johnny Rice’s (Songhees), tournament. A few years earlier he had single-handedly put it together with no sponsorship and no funding, something I would marvel at for years to come. In those days it was just a men’s tournament with 15 or 20 teams mostly from the west coast and lower mainland—Sliammon, Chehalis, Campbell River, Musqueum, Duncan, Nanaimo… I can remember players from each team—sleek and handsome.
I was 15 years old and there to watch the Saanich Braves, my boyfriend and soon to be husband’s team. While I loved to watch the games, it was the tournament itself that fascinated me.
I stood alone. Always alone. I was learning that I was white, something a white girl, in those days, had no way of knowing. The Totem tournament was Indian. I felt self-conscious and sometimes afraid but after awhile I found a space as an observer where I was somewhat comfortable.
So there I was at Hampton Park. A muddle of players and fans were milling around. A game had just finished and the Saanich Braves supporters were swarming the sidelines, setting up their lawn chairs and blankets ready for their match to start.
Onto the field strode what looked to be a Catholic priest (perhaps a Brother, I wouldn’t have known the difference). He was alone, garbed in a full-length black robe and a white priestly collar. I’m pretty sure he wore a large cross hanging from a long necklace.
He joined a small huddle of players who were still celebrating their win. I thought it curious that he would be so confident.
As if in slow-motion one of the players pulled his arm back. I watched him wind up. I kept my eye on the profile of the black robed man. While he was smiling, as if to congratulate the team, the fist nailed him right in the nose. As if I was watching a cartoon I saw him fly backwards, arms flailing, feet up, robes catching the wind like sails, the cross on the necklace whirling through the air.
I had never heard such a thing let alone watched its every movement. The crunch of what was probably a broken nose, together with blood bursting like fireworks, should have shocked and appalled me. But I was in my observer place, wishing hard that I wasn’t the only other white person in the park. At the same time I was thinking there is more to this—a backstory I need to know if I am to understand this gory event.
The player and his teammates turned their backs and walked away as if nothing had happened. No one from the sidelines rushed to help the injured man. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, held his nose while rearranging his robe and stumbled to the sideline where he found a bench and sat down.
Every Easter Sunday afterwards I wondered what had happened that day and why.
In 1991 when Diane Harris and I interviewed former students of Kuper Island residential school we met an old soccer player. He asked us into his house and we sat in his living room amongst beautiful pieces of his art that were pinned to the wall. He said he was tired of being silent—that it was time to share his stories from Kuper. He told us about the time he attempted to escape with his brother, only to be sent back and the time he got a bunch of students together to report the abusers at the school, only to be silenced by the arch bishop. He described his confusion when he returned home, his alcoholism and other forms of self-abuse.
Then he told us about the only time he had the chance to truly express how he felt about the Kuper Island school. It was at an Easter soccer tournament. He said he was outraged by the nerve of the brother from the school who had come right onto the soccer field to congratulate him for the win. He told us how good it felt to punch him in the face.
Casting my memory back to witnessing exactly that instant now it all made sense. It was just a moment and 20 years later an explanation. I never could have imagined such a story. But it was a fundamental event in my life and in my learning what it means to be white. It may sound random on this Easter Sunday and I don’t want to be preachy or teachy but things are not usually what they first appear and through long and complicated life experiences I’ve come to know that being white is a deeply complex thing to be.
I don’t apologize for my colour—I did that for years and it did no good.
Diane told me not to stay on the sidelines. She said it was my job to talk about what I saw…so I have and I do. I share this strange memory only to give us a moment of pause to contemplate the tiny space we inhabit and to encourage us all to keep looking for the explanations of things we don’t quite understand.
Thirty years ago Diane Harris, my best friend, sister-in-law and then social worker for Stz’uminus First Nation convinced me that Kuper Island Residential School, where her parents (my in-laws) and many local First Nations kids went to school, was a central cause for the trauma and dysfunction being experienced in her community. And, she said, no one was talking about it. She then convinced me to go with her while she interviewed former students. She said she would interview and I would take notes. Over a couple of months during the summer of 1991 we talked to 70 people. Several people pointed their finger at me and said that they were only talking to me because I was writing it down and they wanted me to tell people…to tell the world what had happened at the school.
Afterwards I filed my writing pads in my desk. I couldn’t even reread my notes. I had no courage to write and no will to tell. My own life was coming unhinged, partly as a generational effect of the Kuper Island school. I was devastated from the stories I’d heard, heartbroken by my family’s own suffering and conflicted about my role, a white woman, in the whole tragedy.
I had a debilitating case of “who the hell are you to say or write anything?” It’s been a life long condition that has constantly had me waffling between thinking I should share my experiences and knowledge and burying my stories to avoid criticism. Diane is pretty much fully responsible for convincing me to write anything at all. She shamed me into writing. “You always tell people they should not be afraid to tell their truths and share their stories,” she lectured me. “Then why are you afraid?” I’m still afraid, but as Diane continues to tell me “Quit that now.”
Back to the Kuper Island interviews; Diane wouldn’t let up on me. “You promised you would write the story,” she said. A day never went by when I wished I hadn’t promised. I just couldn’t do it. We talked and talked about what we had heard. We went over the notes and I jotted down glimpses I remembered and thoughts that she shared with me. We came up with an abbreviated rendition of our notes called “the interview”.
The former students we spoke to also asked us to put on a gathering so they could share their stories amongst themselves. Diane and I, in spite of threats from the Catholic Church and from First Nations people who didn’t want the stories told, arranged the first residential school conference in the country. Phil Fountaine led the discussions along with the late Delmar Johnnie from Cowichan.
Diane invited Christine Welsh, a Metis filmmaker, and Peter Campbell from Gumboot Productions, to film the Kuper Island gathering. (I’ve attached Kuper Island: A return to the healing circle.) Diane also helped organize the healing ceremony on Penelekut Island that you can see in the film. She set up a table and invited people to bring photos of their family who lost their lives because of the school. The table was filled with images, not just of the children who didn’t return from the school and were buried on the school site, but of those who did return but died early, tragically, either from TB or other health conditions or from the trauma of the experience of the Kuper Island school.
The film turned out to be the best way to get the story out, the one I could not write and could not tell. It will be rereleased this fall with a new name, Penelakut: Returning to the Healing Circle.
Finally in 2000 Rita Morris, Ann Sam (both from WOJELEP First Nation) and I found a way to tell the stories of the Kuper Island school. They were kids’ stories so we wrote them for kids. We worked with 6 elders from WASANEC who listened to the stories I wrote and gave us feedback on everything from the tone of the language to what they actually ate at the school to the type of vehicles that were around at the time. The stories, made fiction, can be found in the book No Time To Say Goodbye. It came out 20 years ago and is still being sold with all the proceeds going towards First Nations’ youth activities.
My apologies for repeating some of what I wrote in an earlier post. Diane was in Nanaimo Hospital during the amazing Kuper Island Residential School walk in Chemainus a few weeks ago. I brought her photos and “the interview,” the only writing that we managed to produce in those early years. It’s never been published or widely shared. They are not my words or Diane’s they come directly from the interviews that I put together almost 30 years ago as a collage and that I am giving back…to the world…where the people who entrusted me with them wanted them to be.
do you think it is a sin to tell
no maybe it isn’t
but they told us never to tell
I don’t think it can be a sin
they aren’t around anymore anyway
but it might be best to just let the thing alone
it’s time to get on don’t you think
some of the elders are saying that it’s best left alone
life is hard enough just dealing with what happens today
sometimes I wonder why it is so hard
nothing seems to make sense to me
it’s hard for the kids
I love them so much
I don’t know how to tell them…..or show them
I’ve never tucked them into bed…..or read them a bedtime story
it’s best left alone don’t you think
I think it was hard for mom to send me there
but I don’t know
we never talked about it
she’s gone now
I remember my grandmother
she cried when they came and took me
quietly….but I knew she was crying
I know she didn’t want me to go
she said she couldn’t stop them
and maybe it would be best
she thought it might be good for me to learn English
I was so scared
I was only six
I hadn’t been off the reserve much
I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me
they talked so fast
I couldn’t even pick up the little bit of English that I knew
there were a few of us
I remember George
he was a bit older than me
he helped me out with the English
but he was scared too
the boat ride over to the island was the worst
I didn’t know where I was
I knew that my parents would never be able to find me
my cousin was there
I thought I could find her
she would help me
but I never saw the girls much
she would smile at me and wave
but I lived with the boys
they beat me up a lot
they said I was a sissie because I wanted my cousin
but I didn’t stay a sissie long
I had more trouble learning English that some of the boys
it seemed that I was always hungry
hungry and mad
there was one brother that used to hit me
he made me sit in the closet all day
I didn’t know how to say that I had to go to the bathroom
so I wet my pants
I sat in the dark closet all day
he forgot me and I fell asleep
he got me out in the morning
I was really afraid of the dark
I guess I still am
you know I sleep with all the lights on
it was that same brother that used to come into our room at night
I used to see him take the other boys away
one by one
I didn’t know what he was doing
until one night he took me away
then I knew
the boys didn’t talk to each other about it
we still don’t
I missed my grandmother
I could smell her when I went to bed
I saw her a couple of times
during the summer before we went berry picking
I told her that they weren’t nice to me out there
I didn’t tell her what they did to me
she used to just hold me
it didn’t make sense
I don’t think it made sense to her either
I always remember her
she died when I was nine
I used to look after some of the boys in the infirmary
one boy from Sooke got really sick one year
they wrapped towels around his neck
I had to bring him food but he couldn’t eat
it was T.B.
I remember them finally getting a doctor over to see him
the doctor got really mad
they took the boy over to the hospital in Chemainus
he made it
but he never came back to school
some of the boys tried to tell them
they tried to get the place changed
mostly it just ended up in a fight
I guess we learned they were in charge
they whipped some of the boys
we were all supposed to be quiet so we could hear them cry
one boy wouldn’t cry
we heard him get whipped and whipped
the brother was swearing at him
he said that if he would just cry then it would stop
but he wouldn’t cry
some were really strong
the only thing to do was run away
I went to the village and tried to get on a fish boat
they brought me back
others tried to escape
escape….it’s funny isn’t it
but that’s it
we were trying to escape
the island was like Alcatraz….no way out….no way off
others tried to escape on logs
or in canoes
some made it
I remember when there was a bigdance at Kuper
the people would come over on their boats
they would walk right past the school to get to the bighouse
we would look out the window and watch them
sometimes we would see our family
when I got older I didn’t want to see them
they didn’t know me anymore
I didn’t know them either
when I went home for the summer I didn’t fit
they had got on with their lives
I didn’t know how to get on with mine
I guess I hated most things
I hated the school
I hated the food
the beds….used to wet mine all the time
the bigger boys
I hated talking Indian
I hated not being able to talk English properly
I hated being Indian
it didn’t make sense
they said everything that was Indian was evil
everything that was Indian you were supposed to change
I hated being Indian
I hated white people
I guess mostly I just hated myself
I started doing some of the things I hated most
it didn’t make me feel good
but I can’t remember ever really feeling good
I had nothing to lose
no one was there for me….except me
I was about fifteen when I finally got out of there
I didn’t live at home long after
I pretty much just slept wherever I found myself
I started drinking real bad
I was real bad
I knew one thing and that was that I would never
let no white man tell me what to do
I wasn’t going to let no one tell me what to do
but I didn’t know what to do
you know I have never gone to look for a job
I’ve worked on the reserve sometimes
but I’ve never looked for a job
no I’ve always just looked after myself here
it’s probably best
I can’t control myself when I get mad
I don’t let anyone tell me what to do
no one pushes me around
anyway….I never went back to school after Kuper
I guess I learned to read and write
but I’d never be able to get one of those office jobs
why did they send me to that school?
I don’t really know
my mom’s gone now
she was angry when I left so she didn’t really say
I have never known my dad
they separated when I was at school
he’s on the mainland somewhere
I’m not sure where now
he went to Kuper….I’m not sure about mom
I’d like to find out
there is a big empty hole in my life
sometimes I am just empty
it’s like the whole sky with nothing in it
but not even
it’s not even like that
sometimes I spend a whole day and I don’t think about anything
I think I would like to pray
I haven’t gone to church since I left the school
no….I did once
the priest said mass in Indian
I couldn’t even understand what he said
it doesn’t make sense does it
they changed the rules
now the priest can talk Indian better than me
God doesn’t make sense
at school we prayed all day
beforebreakfast at breakfast afterbreakfast beforelunchatlunch….
but all I prayed for was to go home
God never listened
they told me there were devils at home
I never had a home after
I can’t pray to God anymore
I just go out in the woods and sit
I’ve told you what I remember
I think I don’t remember most of it
it’s part of the emptiness
it’s part of what doesn’t make sense
I’m still afraid….I’m afraid to remember
I’ve told what I remember
it hurts but sometimes I don’t know why
everyone has their stuff to deal with
I don’t want to blame them for the way I am
some people say they had a good time out at Kuper
some say it was better than home
some remember good people out there
there was one brother
he used to coach our soccer team
we were really good
we would go to Chemainus to play
sometimes we would travel
I was a good soccer player
yea….now that I remember I had a good time playing soccer
I started writing stories 21 years ago. I was a natural story-teller and an inquisitive listener—I loved that part of being an oral historian—but I was not a writer.
My vocabulary consisted of a handful of words and the collection of strange phrases my father used like heebie jeebie, oddie moddie and sixty-fifty. He was a worldly-illiterate Bible reader (almost the only book in our home). But I always loved his wonderfully creative, if unsophisticated, way of communicating. I attended university during the 1990s so I was marginally more literate than him, but when I tried to write I couldn’t find words to fit my ideas. Stringing one sentence after the other, after the other, after the other made my head literally hurt to touch. Worse yet, making sense out of pages of sentences was excruciating.
The only reason I was writing stories 21 years ago was because in 1992 Diane, my sister-in-law, had interviewed more than 70 former students of Kuper Island Residential School. I had gone along to write the notes. She promised the people that we would share their stories—that other people would finally know what went on at Kuper. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. No one did in 1992. What we heard was horrifying.
But Diane would not let it go until we had fulfilled her promise. She pestered me to write the stories into a book. “I can’t,” I would tell her. “I can write notes. But I can’t write a book. Especially not this book.” Can you even imagine? How could I put such profoundly disturbing and, up until then, almost entirely unwritten stories, onto the page using my pathetic vocabulary and almost non-existent writing skills? From my Bible background I called up the feelings expressed by Moses who also felt inadequate, “Please, Lord, send someone else”.
Fast forward to the late 90s. A group of us decided to write residential school stories for our local school using Diane’s interviews and others we had collected. A long story truncated. I drew the short straw. The writing was left up to me. Difficult does not begin to describe the process. I found an editor to help. A publisher found my stories and offered to publish. I said no. Diane continued to pester me. She had made the promise. This was her way to fulfil it. Finally I conceded. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School was published in 2001. Twenty years ago.
I had never imagined becoming an author. Being published was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact I found the very idea of people reading my writing terrifying.
Being an author was an odd thing. My name (along with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, who worked on the project) were on the front of the book but they did not, in any way, reflect the crowd of people who made the story. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I was a tiny piece of an unimaginably complex and distressing puzzle but I didn’t know where my piece fit. Amazingly, the book is still in print. It has sold many thousands of copies and in 2018 it was put on the BC schools’ curriculum list.
Awful as that experience was I was hooked on writing and I soon began what I call “Stories from my kitchen window”. From where I lived in Tsartlip First Nation I watched my kids and the neighbours’ kids making sense out of their world. The view from my kitchen window was a cross cultural landscape where people got along, where they didn’t get along, where who you were was determined by the colour of your skin and where you were defined by your parentage. As you can imagine my whiteness coloured everything.
My stories were wispy glimpses of kids getting up in the morning and facing the day in the sort of world that I lived in. I crossed cultures. Of course I did. I lived in an adopted home. One where I was never entirely comfortable nor entirely welcome. But I was a mother and it was my kids’ home so it was my home as well and it provided the window from which I observed the world.
I didn’t just write kids’ books and young adult novels, although at that time they were my favourite stories. I dabbled in social commentary, history and personal essays—18 books altogether by 2020.
Twenty years after my first book was published, books number 19 and 20 are finished and will go to press in the spring of 2021—at least that’s the plan. In April, Douglas & McIntyre will publish Unravelling Canada my first travel book. You might have guessed that it’s travel through a knitting lens. In May, Orca Books will publish Growing up Elizabeth May, my first biography (for middle school age kids). COVID might mess with the publication dates so I’ll write more about these books later.
I am celebrating this anniversary in an unusual space for me. I don’t have a book on the go. Don’t worry. I have a textbook to start and an interactive ebook to write, so I’m not out of the business. But I am enjoying a very short calm. For once I am not struggling to find words. Or bewailing the ones I have found. I am riding out 2020 in this empty space. Perhaps not an entirely empty space, you might see more blogs than ever before because, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a writing addict.