Larry Loyie is a residential school survivor and award-winning Cree author (www.firstnationswriter.com). He lives in Edmonton, AB, and has visited more than 1,600 classrooms.His recent book, Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors (available from Indigenous Education Press) is an accessible national history. It has been called “essential reading” by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and is Highly Recommended by CM Magazine and elsewhere.
Having visited more than 1600 classrooms in my 22 years as an author, I can attest that the history of the schools is still hidden. Teachers have access to the Internet, but the resources are scattered. Most teachers are non-aboriginal. What can they say and what information can they trust?
My response was to spend more than 20 years researching and three years writing Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors (available from Indigenous Education Press), an accessible history for readers of all backgrounds and ages. I travelled every summer with my partner, co-author Constance Brissenden, interviewing former students from schools across Canada. Co-author Wayne K. Spear (Mohawk), a former communications director at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, rounded out our writing triumvirate.
Looking back on the bad times in residential school, I see they inspire my work.
I grew up in northern Alberta in a log home near the town of Slave Lake. My family lived a traditional Cree life, living off the land. I was in grade three in public school, speaking English, and learning to read and write. At the age of eight, a grain truck arrived to take my siblings and myself to St. Bernard Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta. I wanted a good education, but I didn’t get it. We were supposed to be in the classroom for a half-day of schooling. Instead we did endless chores, such as polishing the floors, washing dishes, picking potatoes, and piling wood.
My mother died while I was in residential school. With so much hurt inside, I ran away twice. At 13, I quit and started working on farms, logging, and oil camps.
In the late 1980s, I began to pursue my long-time dream of becoming a writer. I wrote about my six years in residential school. I concentrated on the good things. Although not many, they were something to cling too. I did have one trained teacher, Sister Theresa, who opened my horizon on the world. I have always been grateful to her.
One day, a story of mine was discussed in a free creative writing class at the Carnegie Learning Centre in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Someone said, “It must have been good in that school.” It was then I knew I wasn’t facing the bad things.
Encouraged by friends, I talked with others who also experienced residential school. Talking helped me write the truth.
Students asked: What happened when you went to residential school?
Legends and traditional stories from our cultures are often used in children’s books. They don’t tell students about our histories and lifestyles, or how change has influenced our lives over the centuries. Through my books, I determined to educate readers.
My first book, As Long as the Rivers Flow, about my last traditional summer at home, won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction. The sequel, Goodbye Buffalo Bay, answered the students’ question, “What happened to you when you went to that school?”
Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors goes beyond these memoirs. It takes a 360-degree view of the history of the residential school system. More than 65 survivors are quoted in the book. We didn’t censor their memories or observations. If they said something positive, we included it. We added biographies to show the accomplishments of each survivor. Their presence give the book’s seven chapters both humanity and veracity.
“It wasn’t fair.”
The subject of residential school brings out different emotional responses. As one grade four student told us, “As Long as the Rivers Flow is my favorite book. It made my teacher cry.”
Children respond to the history of residential schools by simply stating: “It wasn’t fair.”
Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors provides an informed framework for memoirs like mine and other authors.
Student get creative about residential schools
Students read Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors to understand the history of the schools, and also learn from primary (first-person) sources (the survivors), see their faces, and learn about the many facets of the schools through descriptions and images.
Students read and discuss the Canadian government’s June 11, 2008 apology, available online.
They watch videos such as Where are the Children?
They write first-person short stories.
In the role of residential school students, they write letters home to their parents.
They write and perform their own plays about the schools.
One student in Durham District County devised and mapped out an escape plan from a school.
Others share their thoughts in literature circles and in presentations to their classroom’s version of the United Nations.
“Is it true?”
I no longer worry that people who read my books or hear me speak about residential schools will ask, “Is it true? Was it really that bad in school?”
In the 1980s, survivors began to speak about their experiences. Their courage and determination over the decades made the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report possible. Now the truth is out, and I am hopeful about the future. The children are being remembered and honoured at last.
NOTE: You are free to use this essay. Please let Larry Loyie know if you use the essay in the classroom or elsewhere (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TO ORDER Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors by Larry Loyie with Wayne K. Spear and Constance Brissenden: 1 877 862 8483 EXT 1 or online: www.goodminds.com