Canada’s dark legacy of Indian Residential schools is well documented. But does that tell the whole story?
Kerry Benjoe of Regina graduated from the last Indian Residential school in Lebret, Saskatchewan in the early ’90s. Hers is not a story of abuses but of happy memories and a school where students excelled in academics and athletics.
Kerry’s residential school experience is the focus of a master’s thesis she completed for the University of Regina’s School of Journalism.
The Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School was the first Indian residential school to open in western Canada in 1884 and the last one to close in Canada in 1998.
For her thesis, Kerry reconnected with former students, parents, teachers, and support workers who told stories that she says “paint a different picture of the school.”
The school was operated by the Star Blanket Cree Nation from 1984 to its closure. Kerry is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.
The title of her project is Mīnisa, a Cree word meaning family. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What got you interested in this project?
The fact that there is no history of my time in residential school. When I tell people that I went to residential school I always get the ‘oh I’m so sorry” and I always have to say no it’s ok it wasn’t so bad for me. I’m tired of having to explain that and I think that’s common among students of this era because our story is completely different than that of our parents.
Give us a sense in what way your story is different than the Indian residential school experience of your parents and grandparents?
I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t assaulted in any way. There was a lot of pride. Pride in ourselves. There was a real focus on education and athletics. I think that was to build us up as students so that when we left school we would have the tools to be successful. My parents didn’t have that. It wasn’t a very happy place for them.
My dad ran away from school so many times. He was 13 years when he ran away and they left him alone. My mom used to tell me residential school was the place she would go to cry.
That wasn’t what I experienced. I was surrounded by friends. We laughed. The halls were filled with laughter. Even our supervisors doubled as surrogate parents for us. They consoled us when we were upset. They were supportive. They cheered us on. They gave us advice. They scolded us when we needed to be scolded. They filled that role as parents when we had to be away from our parents.
How did you end up in Lebret?
There was no high school on my reserve. The only option was residential school or get bussed to Regina to go to school. So either way I would have had to have left my community and I appreciate that my mom chose Lebret because I had a chance to be sheltered from some of the experiences people of my generation may have experienced here in the city in a predominantly non-Indigenous education system.
I was surrounded by people like me. I was taught by people like me. I did not have this sense of feeling bad about who I was. I felt equal to everybody just because I did not face a whole lot of racism since I entered school.
How did that make you feel?
I think it gave me a step up when I graduated from Lebret. I entered the University of Regina and pursued by English and Indigenous studies. I was probably the only brown face in a sea of white when I attended but that didn’t stop me. I didn’t feel inferior to anybody. I felt like I belonged there. Because I had that opportunity from pre-school to grade 12 to be told I was just as good as everyone else that I just carried that with me when I went to any place. The culture shock was still there but not to the extreme where it stopped me. I was the first college graduate in my family simply because that’s where I was supposed to be and I didn’t let anything interfere with that goal.
In your master’s thesis there are amazing personal stories you capture of people who attended the school. Generally speaking what were their experiences at this residential school?
They look back at it with a sense of nostalgia. Pride, happiness and connection. It doesn’t matter what year you went there, there was this sense of belonging, which is why I chose why I choose mīnisa ats the title of my project. It means family. There’s this sense of belonging. We all connected. We all bonded we all became family.
One student talks to you about the cultural component of the school, smudging for example. What did that mean to the students attending?
When I went there it wasn’t there yet. I learned that when I was doing the project. To hear they woke up with a smudge every morning really filled me with a sense of pride. Those schools were designed to erase all of that from us. The fact it was re-introduced once Star Blanket took over operation of the school and that they brought back these cultural components like language, ceremony, culture. To know that these students in the school woke up to a smudge like we would have if we were at home. It seemed like it came full circle for me. They tried to erase it and after 100 years of trying to erase it they couldn’t and it was back. I think It highlights the resilience of Indigenous people. It is really good to be able to tell this story to my children.
What were the academic standards like at Lebret?
They expected the best. They pushed academics. Even if you wanted to participate in any kind of extracurricular activity you needed a 60 percent average. And they made it possible because they worked in study periods and study hall. It was very regimented. That was okay because we were doing it at the same time and so it did not seem overly harsh. Anybody who got over 70 percent did not have to go to study hall so it was a reward system. The better grades the more rewards you got in the end. Really focussing on education helps students become successful when they left because they knew how to study and they knew where hard work could take you.
It begs the question as to why the school was demolished. What are your thoughts on the school being closed and being torn down?
It wasn’t fair because there was a formula, they found a formula that was producing, It was producing well-adjusted graduates. They were providing an environment that was safe. There was so much opportunity there for students. Some who were coming from broken homes. They found a safe place to be and to be successful. I think there was a lot of potential for that school to continue. Once it found that groove they said no more they shut it down and there wasn’t any alternative. There’s still a lack of high schools on reserves. There is still a lack of quality of education on first nations reserves. I think this school in its heyday was meeting those needs of Indigenous students that weren’t being met in other places. I think It is unfortunate it did happen. I know what it did for me and I know what it did for a lot of my fellow students.
Your thesis includes a lesson plan for teachers and students. What the idea behind this?
This is a really important chapter. It’s a chapter that hasn’t been told. It is essential to tell the full narrative of Indian residential schools. We need to get the final chapter because this question is always raised. Well was it that bad right to until the end. And so this project hopefully answers a bit of that question. No, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t horrible like the stories we hear from previous generations. I won’t take away from those experiences but I want people to be able to get the full grasp of residential schools. Because they operated right up until 1998. Our story has been absent. When I was researching there was a minuscule amount of information on residential schools from my time. I think being able to teach this to the next generation will help to highlight the resilience that I keep talking about Indigenous people. Not only did we survive that system, but we also flipped it around and made it work for us. For my children, it’s important for them to know that story and it is important for my grandchildren to know that story. We are here because we come from a long line of survivors. People that refused to give up and hang on to our culture. We still have our fluent Cree speakers. We still have our ceremonies. We still have all of our celebrations. It’s because we survived.
So it is my job to carry on that story and to highlight their successes because they did a lot to help me to become the person I am. I didn’t get here on my own. I got here because of their sacrifices. There is no information, so if a teacher wants to look at my website and share it with their students there’s a lesson plan they can go through it.
Kerry Benjoe is a journalist at CBC Saskatchewan.