Lost amongst dozens of islets in Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s mainland lies a special place:
Cormorant Island and its village, Alert Bay.
This is home to the Namgis First Nation within the larger Kwakwaka’wakw band, who built an astonishingly rich, creative culture as amply demonstrated today in Alert Bay by the U’mista Cultural Centre, the Big House and a flowering community of artists and carvers. Towering totems with real and mythical creatures abound. Enormous canoes were built from single old-growth cedar trees. Glorious masks representing eagles, thunderbirds, orcas and mythical creatures are used in dances acting out traditional stories and legends. The Namgis, and all First Nations, have a generous, sharing philosophy; the real wealth for Natives is not money, but knowledge of dances and songs.
But the white men came, and in their colonial lust for land, they trampled on those who have lived on it for millennia. As laid bare by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Natives were shoved aside and treated despicably. Cultural genocide, the Commission called it. Canada, a democratic country that prides itself in freedom and liberty, bears a dark stain from those actions.
The worst insult, the cruelest blow, was the establishing of residential schools, which Native children were forced to attend so their Native culture and language could be expunged, beaten out of them if necessary.
About 130 residential schools were set up in Canada and about 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend them. Of the 29 schools in British Columbia, one was in Alert Bay on the peaceful, beautiful Cormorant Island. St. Michaels Residential School operated from 1894 to 1974, at first in two wooden buildings, one for girls and one for boys. In 1929, they were replaced by a large, three-storey brick building.
Children were forcibly torn from families and placed into a foreign environment where they were not allowed to speak their language or practice their traditional pastimes. Nor could they visit their families, except fleetingly.
Although there must have been many instances of proper and loving care, somehow the system came unglued and the brick schoolhouse here and others throughout the country became houses of horror. Given the residential schools were operated by the Anglican, United and Catholic churches, it’s not easy to understand why things went wrong. Abuse of a sexual, physical and psychological nature, even torture, became prevalent. There are numerous documented cases of beatings that resulted in broken limbs, children placed in isolation in black closets often for days, needles pushed through a tongue because the Native language had been spoken, and more, and worse.
An estimated 6,000 students died while at residential schools, an astonishingly high number. The risk of an aboriginal child dying at residential school was higher than for a Canadian serving in World War II! When a study showed many of these deaths were caused by tuberculosis, which could be largely avoided, the federal government rejected the results and buried the report. Thus, it contributed to the deaths of many more children.
Defying credulity, it appears that during the time these schools operated (more than a century) very few, if any, people were charged with criminal offenses for any of these heinous abuses. During my (brief) research I did not find a single case of a person spending a day in court nor being charged, nor paying a fine, nor spending any time in jail. The most that happened was that a few people were forced to resign. The immensity of the cover-up by the federal government is staggering. Thank goodness for the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Pity it didn’t come decades earlier.
In February 2015, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School was torn down, no doubt with the hope that its painful memories would disappear with it. The photos here show the school as it was a few years ago.