Wikwemikong sisters tell stories of abuse, lonliness while at St. Joseph’s girls’ residential school, Spanish

by Alicia McCutcheon

LITTLE CURRENT—The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement which attempted to resolve the class-action suits brought against churches and the federal government because of the destructive and abusive nature of the residential school experience. On May 12 and 13, this commission held sessions in Little Current.

Residential school survivors from all over Northern Ontario came to the two-day event. A portion of each day was set aside so survivors could mingle with each other, speak about the reconciliation process and share their personal stories.

Last Thursday, The Expositor had the honour of sitting with two Wikwemikong sisters—Ida Embry and Blue Cloud Woman—who attended St. Joseph’s residential school in Spanish during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“This is supposed to be healing for us, but it’s not,” Ida Embry said. “What happened to us is just so embedded in our psyche.”

When asked if it was a comfort to have had her sister there with her at the school, Ms. Embry said that while it was nice having her there, “it was really a trauma for me, seeing my sister be so badly abused.”

“I’m sorry, I get really emotional,” Ms. Embry added, as both she and her sister, Blue Cloud Woman, wiped away tears. “It brings it all flooding back.”

Blue Cloud Woman explained that she was forced to the residential school at age 9 in 1938 and was there every year until 1944.

During the Thursday afternoon presentation by Algoma University’s Shingwauk Project, there was a screening of a silent film from the 1930s made by the Jesuit priests who ran the boys residential school at Spanish. The film featured happy images of boys and girls frolicking in the summer sun, swimming, playing soccer and swinging on a play set at the two residential schools.

“That wasn’t the Spanish that we knew,” Ms. Embry said. “It’s an insult to us.”

Then the elder began to tell a story of trauma and anguish, beginning with one winter afternoon when she was a young girl of eight or nine.

“It was mid-winter when they took us out for a walk on a Sunday afternoon,” she said, conferring with her sister to make sure Sunday was the day the students were made to go for walks with the prefects. “They took us out on the lake, past the dock. I lagged behind and could see the snow blowing off the ice and could just vaguely see the girls ahead of me.”

Suddenly, she continued, she slipped on the ice and fell, knocking herself unconscious. The other girls continued their walk, completely unaware that young Ida was no longer with the group. It wasn’t until supper at 6 pm that night, four to five hours later, that the prefects were alerted to the girl’s disappearance, she said.

“They probably thought I had run away,” she added.

Her sister, Blue Cloud Woman, explained that the school was searched from top to bottom before they remembered the walk on the ice, and that’s where they found Ida, lying under a pile of snow and almost frozen to death.

“They brought me to the infirmary and I stayed there for over two weeks,” Ms. Embry said, recovering from her hypothermia, frostbite and concussion. “I couldn’t see for a long time after that. Since that happened I became very sickly, very weak. I blame our prefects. They should have had more responsibility for everyone. Apparently they didn’t.”

She wiped away tears from under the dark glasses that protect her damaged eyes, a direct result of what happened to her that day.

“Our mother used to have to put her in a dark room when we came back to Wikwemikong for the summer,” Blue Cloud Woman said.

“There was lots of discrimination there,” she continued. “The girls who were fair with light eyes were the pets, like the Mohawks. I was dark. I was told by a nun, ‘I don’t like you.'”

Blue Cloud Woman explained the dimension of the strap the nuns used on a daily basis for punishment as being almost two feet long, thick and maybe four inches wide. Not unlike a bicycle tire that’s been cut and flattened, she said.

“We were whipped every time we spoke Ojibwe,” she said.

Ms. Embry explained that when she first arrived at the residential school, she spoke no English. “We had to whisper to each other in our language.”

Through tears, Ms. Embry recounted a particularly traumatic incident of abuse and humiliation she witnessed that was directed at her sister by the nuns.

One morning the girls were down in the playroom of the school, she began, noting that the room was divided into two sides, junior and senior. She sat on the senior side, watching. Four little girls were brought into the junior side of the room, among them Blue Cloud Woman. Ms. Embry said she watched while the girls were made to stand between the playroom pillars with a urine-soaked bedsheet draped over their faces. The girls were being punished for wetting their beds in the night.

The sisters spoke to one another, trying to remember the name of a fellow survivor.

“You remember, number 33? Susan?” Ms. Embry asked her sister.

Not only did the students have their culture taken away from them, but their self-identities too. The nuns never referred to the students by name, only by number, the sisters explained.

“My number was 44 and Ida’s was 107,” Blue Cloud Woman said.

“Your identity is so important to you and they just take it away,” Ms. Embry said.

Blue Cloud Woman recounted being at church one Sunday morning, girls on one side and boys on the other. The girls were already seated and the boys had begun to file in, she said. Hoping to catch a glimpse of her brother, she searched and searched, craning her neck to see him when she was jarred by a sharp poke to the back of her head.

“It was the sister,” she continued, explaining how she was forced to follow the nun to the back of the church and made to stare only at the altar for the entire service.

“I got the strap that night and was forced to eat alone on a box in the playroom for an entire month,” she added.

Blue Cloud Woman said that the students weren’t even allowed to write to their parents, a fact she learned the hard way. After suffering so much abuse at the hands of the nuns, she said she decided to write a letter to her mother, telling her of what was happening.

“I gave it to the laundry woman to mail for me,” she continued.

The following day, a nun called number 44 to the office. There, on her desk, sat the letter home. The nun proceeded to read the letter aloud, tear it into shreds and throw it into a wastepaper basket. Blue Cloud Woman was then strapped for her efforts.

“When I was 14, I hid at a woman’s house in Kaboni the day the bus came to pick us up to take us back to Spanish,” Blue Cloud Woman remembers, allowing that the thought of another year of abuse was too much to bear. “The woman had three children and I told her I would help her look after her children if I could stay there and she agreed.”

One month later, the Indian agent found her in hiding and personally drove her to Spanish.

Come June, she said, the students were so happy to return home for the summer. Blue Cloud Woman said she remembers, along with the rest of the students, getting their bundles with the clothes and shoes they arrived in ready to take home. Suddenly, she continued, a nun told her to put everything back as she wouldn’t be going home. This was punishment for missing the beginning of the school year.

“One day, a month later, the superior came downstairs to the playroom, a person you never saw there,” Blue Cloud Woman continued. “She told me to go upstairs and she had a strange look on her face. She told me to go and get my clothes. When I got to the parlour, there was my mother and sister. I was so happy I just jumped. My mother’s face looked upset, and I think she had an argument with the superior.” Her mother was there to take her home to Wikwemikong for the rest of the summer vacation.

Ms. Embry explained that during her time at the residential school, there were 135 girls there and each girl had a special friend, a source of comfort that was so important during that time in their lives.

“My friend was number 24, Pauline,” she said. “We would play together every chance we got. Pauline left before I did and that was the saddest day,” she said as she broke down. “I was actually lost. It was like losing someone in your family—a death.”

Blue Cloud Woman said that once she helped three girls escape. Once the nun was asleep, around midnight, the girls got up and she slowly and quietly raised the window near the nun’s bed. The three girls then climbed out of the window and escaped down the fire exit. She smiled as she remembered the satisfaction of finally being able to get one over on the sister. The victory was short-lived, however, as the girls were soon caught on the train tracks near Spanish.

“That school is nothing but a shell now,” Blue Cloud Woman continued, noting that she goes and walks the ruins every summer. “The statue of St. Joseph still sits there. It looks so pathetic now.”

“Eventually you just give up,” Ms. Embry observed. “By the end of your time there, everything just becomes automatic. When I came out of that school in 1941, I didn’t know my father and my mother was a stranger. They took that away from us. I get so angry today.”

Both of the sisters said that over time, they were able to recreate the bond with their parents that they had lost during their time away.

“I often think about how my spirit was broken,” Ms. Embry continued, saying that her spirit will never fully be healed because of the horrors she endured. “I think that when you’re a child and you go through a traumatic experience, it just stays with you.”

When asked how the sisters cope with the abuse of their past, how they find peace, Blue Cloud Woman explained that she got married and had a family.

“Sometimes we didn’t know how to raise them, we didn’t know parenting because of the school,” she said. “My children used to scold me for not teaching them the language, for not speaking it to them as children, but I couldn’t.”

She also keeps herself busy on the family farm, sewing, making moccasins, cooking and preserving. “I like going to healing lodges too,” she added. “I’d rather go to a lodge than a church. Now I just go to church for funerals.”

“I followed the ‘red path,'” she said, referring to finding her way with help from the traditional Ojibwe teachings.

“I went back to my culture,” Ms. Embry said. “I learned the things that our parents had started to teach us. I relived some of the childhood spiritual experiences that were lost because of the school. I never did leave the Catholic faith because of Christ’s teachings,” she continued, “but I found it lacking so I started searching.”

Ms. Embry explained that she found what she was looking for in the Brotherhood of the White Temple based out of Sedalia, Colorado. “The study of metaphysics has lifted me up, helped me,” she added.

And although the sisters realize they will probably never fully heal from their experiences those many years ago, they hope that by sharing a small part of their story of abuse, others will know this tragic part of Canada’s history so it may never be forgotten.