ITIDAHT, British Columbia — Vancouver Island is
home to many seemingly idyllic Native Canadian villages like this
one, where bald eagles swirl overhead, deep fir and cedar forests
scent the air and windy Nitinat Lake offers plenty of wild salmon,
crab and trout for the 200 residents.
But among the island's forests and sheltered coves, Clarence
Dennis drifted — drinking, robbing and hurting his children. Daisy
Edwards spent years in a stupor, working as a prostitute after being
raped by her father. Jack George Thompson beat his family, stuck a
pistol in his mouth and nearly pulled the trigger.
Their stories, like so many others here, have a common thread: a
childhood spent at one of the more than 100 residential schools for
Native Canadians financed for more than a century by the government
to force assimilation. The abuses at the schools, the last of which
was closed in 1986 and which were run by the Roman Catholic,
Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, are well documented.
Lawsuits have been filed against the churches and the Canadian
With government aid, the villagers are trying to heal, mixing
Western psychological tools with traditional religious ceremonies to
try to draw a line on a history of abuse that they and social
workers say has become a generational legacy that threatens to
shatter their people permanently.
No comprehensive study has yet measured the full damage wrought
by the schools. But a growing body of scholarly work suggests that
their legacy is at the root of social ills in scores of Native
villages and among Native Canadians who have migrated to large
One government-financed study noted that almost a quarter of
convicted pedophiles, rapists and perpetrators of incest are Native
Canadians, who make up about 3 percent of the population. The study
concluded that there was a link between attendance at the schools
and becoming a sex offender. (Native Canadians were also more likely
to be prosecuted, it said.)
The therapies have ranged from individual or group sessions with
licensed professionals to traditional Native prayer sessions and
ritual bathing in rivers and streams. Help centers apply treatments
like drumming ceremonies and sweat lodges, the traditional cleansing
saunas set up in domed tents where people can confess and chant.
Mr. Dennis, 62, has been homeless and a drifter for most of his
life since he left the Port Alberni Indian residential school, which
was run by the United Church of Canada. He spent 18 years in jail
for robbery and assault. No relationship with a woman ever worked
out for long. "I couldn't have sex without thinking about being
raped," Mr. Dennis said.
He said that Arthur Henry Plint, who supervised the Port Alberni
school during two five-year intervals until 1968, and another school
administrator took turns raping him, beginning when he was 7. Mr.
Plint was sentenced in 1995 to 11 years in prison for 16 counts of
Recently, Mr. Dennis gathered the courage to return to the school
for a cleansing ceremony with his 29-year-old son, David, whom he
had abandoned. His face streaked with charcoal, his forehead and
midsection wrapped in spruce branches, he closed his eyes as his
off-and-on girlfriend sang an Indian song about a deer who escapes a
hunter. He asked forgiveness of his son. The men embraced and wept.
"I have been violent with my children and I didn't know where it
came from," David Dennis said, adding that he, too, has gone for
counseling after years of misbehavior and three months in jail for
auto theft. "Every one of my brothers is disrespectful to women. How
do you count the casualties on this battlefield?"
In all, 93,000 living Native Canadians, nearly 1 in 10, are
estimated to have passed through the schools, and hundreds of
thousands more have suffered as the children of survivors.
Here in Ditidaht, all those older than 45 attended the Port
Alberni school, and all those younger were brought up by a parent or
grandparent who had gone to the school and had suffered abuse there.
In addition to attacks by school personnel, some students were were
raped or abused by older students.
"They put us in the residential schools that taught us violence
and now they take away our children for slapping them the way we
were slapped at the schools," said Maureen Knighton, 41, who told
other women in a healing group how social workers took two of her
three children away for three months in 1996 when her drinking got
out of hand.
In between chanting, burning sage and cedar in an abalone shell,
and brushing themselves off with an eagle feather, the women
recalled how a government agent forcibly took them from their
parents. They said they were made to change their names, give up
their language and eat worm-infested porridge, all under the threat
of lashings and other punishment.
A fuller accounting of the abuses is beginning to take place in
the courts, and in 1998 a former minister of Indian Affairs formally
apologized for the residential school program, an acknowledgment
many Native Canadians consider inadequate.
At the same time, the government set up the Aboriginal Healing
Foundation, an agency backed by $250 million to study the legacy of
the schools and distribute grants for healing projects for 130,000
Native people. But the foundation has been forced to trim its
operations for lack of funds as the money runs out.
Some Native leaders are pressing to take the government to the
International Human Rights Court to embarrass it into providing more
With the money they have received, public schools in Native
communities are teaching Native languages and dance to shore up
cultural identity and pride. Scores of spiritual workers are
visiting villages to spread the message of healing.
Ms. Edwards, 48, is one such counselor. Visiting a women's
therapy group in Ditidaht recently, she recalled her years as a
prostitute and the rape by her father, who also attended a
residential school. Her path to healing, she said, began the day she
stopped herself from beating her daughter. "I looked down to the
floor and I saw this terrified face and my daughter saying, `Mommy,
Mommy don't hurt me,' " she said. "I spent the next 13 years trying
to figure out how I got there."
More than 1,000 residential school victims have received court
compensation in the last decade, and 12,000 more have filed claims.
Three years ago the Canadian government set up the Office of
Residential Schools Resolution to deal with the issue and distribute
small out-of-court settlements.
"This is a very, very sensitive issue," said Denis Coderre, the
cabinet minister in charge of the office. "It makes us relive the
past. It's about finding a way to heal these victims."
In early February, the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin
announced that it would appeal a lower British Columbia court ruling
that held the national government entirely liable for a local
residential school settlement. (The government wants churches held
accountable as well.) Native Canadian leaders say the decision was
salt in their wounds.
"They broke down our people," said Mr. Thompson, 56, Ditidaht's
elected chief. He is preparing to sue the government for damages,
saying that he was repeatedly beaten and raped at the Port Alberni
He said he drank excessively for 40 years. Now that he is sober
he is trying to negotiate new treaty land rights and lobby for more
aid. "The government and most people in Canada haven't come to terms
with the residential schools," he said. "They don't believe our
stories, and while they take credit for pushing human rights and
aiding people who suffer in Africa they refuse to look in their own
In the meantime, healing will come slowly. The complexities of
the task, Mr. Thompson said, are apparent when he and other village
elders gather their people to talk about what kind of touching is
appropriate between father and daughter.
A number of the men just shake their heads and walk away, he
said. "They don't want to hear about it, because that's just their
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