Haunted House: the Legacy of Residential Schools for Aboriginal Children

Photograph Source: Library and Archives Canada – Public Domain

“We are standing on the grounds of what once was Carcross Residential School (also known as Choutla Residential School). Here, concrete stairs that lead nowhere. There, a truck with the windows busted out. Beyond are some scattered buildings, sagging and decrepit. The site where the actual school stood is empty, save for trash and broken glass. There is heaviness here, and deep sadness. I have brought tobacco with me, but it doesn’t feel right to offer it to the ground. The space is empty, and not in a triumphant way. Not like a racist monument falling, not like a wall that divides being apart stone by stone. Empty like lungs after a desperate sigh. Empty like my hands. Empty like my mouth, with no words to offer into this space.”

A member of the Tlingit Kwanlin Dun First Nation in Whitehorse, Yukon, Anne Spice tells the poignant and disturbing story of her mother, who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), telling of her father’s suffering and demons that ransacked his tormented mind. “We watched our father—we watched our father be destroyed from the inside out. And that was his sacrifice to us, so that we could have a ‘normal’ -a normal life.”

Spice tells us that her mother’s testimony accomplishes three things. First, she breaks the silence, releasing words into the formerly empty space. Second, she “reframes silence as both an enactment of suffering and an act of agency.” Her grandfather held his suffering tight to the ribs and it ripped him apart from the inside out. Spice, ever so tenderly, points out that her mother named his suffering as an act of sacrifice. “Silence is clearly not a simple or passive symptom of trauma, here. It is a powerful tool that both harms and contains. Third, Spice affirms that her mother’s testimony to the TRC “illuminates the inability of the TRC to account for those who did not survive by powerfully evoking my grandfather’s presence, by telling his story even though we do not know exactly what happened.”

When the TRC archives (photos and documents) were uploaded in 2015, Spice went searching for remnants of her grandfather. At Carcross, Yukon she found some photographs of children but not any taken during her grandfather’s time. Somehow, she imagined that he might be there. But he was absent: “haunting the subtext of the buildings and surrounding landscape.” At Whitehorse, she scoured through the documents available and discovered several written summaries of school reports. “The school had a reputation for poor health, harsh discipline, poor food, and unpleasant living quarters. In the 1940s, the principal admitted to strapping students so severely that they had to be held down.” Spice sent the link to her mother and they compared notes.

Lee: After you sent that email
And I found the part about the students
Being strapped and held down
I was a wreck
came undone.

How can Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal people too) imagine even a fragment of what happened at the residential schools? Anne Spice believes that “it was worse than we can imagine. It destroyed him. But he had demons that assaulted him for his whole—whole life. Now decades later, a scrap of text in a report still has the capacity to harm. His silence was a shield. My mother grew up without knowing, and his knowing but not telling was an act of love. We draw strength from my grandfather’s silence and refuse to be tragic.”

The chat about the archives leads Anne to ask Lee, her mother, about her own struggles to “voice the effects of residential school on our family. I tell her of my theories about silence as action, as agency, as sacrifice, as loving containment.”

Anne: Did your father really never talk about residential schools?

Lee: I think
He said something about chopping wood
In the mornings
My brother said that
He remembers him
Talking about chopping wood

Spice stands on the Carcross Residential School site, and tries to conjure up all those little lives. “Doing laundry, living up for dinner, chopping word in the mornings. And untold horrors.” Try as she might, Spice can’t summon up the demons that consumed Peter LeBarge from the inside out. “Instead, I imagine my relations to those who are absent, those who did not survive. I imagine my relations into being; I pull these connections into the water, into the soil, into the medicines, into the animals, into all that I’m trying to protect. I talk to them. I ask them questions. I ask for guidance. I tell them we haven’t forgotten them. I tell them I’m sorry. And even though they’ll never know truth or reconciliation, I hold them up and say thank you.”

Anne speaks the only Tlingit word she really knows: gunalcheesh. “For your action, your agency, your sacrifice, your loving containment. I let the sound of it fill my lungs, my hands, my mouth. Gunalcheesh.”

(From Anne Spice, “Residential Schools.” In Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada: First Nations [Royal Canadian Geographic Society, 2018])

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.