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Orange Shirt Day a reminder of harrowing life in residential school

Mother of local elder shares her story about trying to escape from residential school and the scars she bears from the 'sorrow (that) is everlasting'

Today is Orange Shirt Day. It's a day to recognize the impact and harm that residential schools inflicted on Indigenous communities. Local elder and educator Jeff Monague reflects on the importance of this day. This story, while fiction, describes what life was like in a residential school for people like his mom, Dorothy, and her sisters.

“Make sure you run during recess. Run every day so you can be strong enough. We have a month and then we will leave this place!” my older sister Tracy said, loudly whispering into my ear during recess at the residential school.

She had hopped the fence during recess to give me instructions. She glanced around nervously, and then she told me she loved me and cared about me. I cried as I watched her climb the fence and return to her side of the playground where the big kids played during recess.

We were segregated from one another; big kids over there, little kids on my side.

I wiped big tears as I watched her walk away and I felt the great sobs of hurt welling up deep inside of me. I missed her. I tried to suppress my sadness. Once more, I grew angry.

We had run away once before, Tracy and I. She was eight and I was six when we ran away from this place. We had only been here two months and one day during laundry chores she took me by the hand and we walked right out the main gate.

We turned right on the highway that bypassed this residential school and began our journey back home to our parents and Gramma and Grampa.

We surmised a right turn onto the highway considering that the emerald green stake truck that brought us here had turned left into the property.

We’d only made it about a mile and a half before the school nurse was sent to pick us up.

The principal, a big tall white woman, hit me so hard when I dismounted the vehicle that I was actually lifted high into the air. We were separated and I was placed into the segregation room which was really a box-shaped building far behind the school known to us as solitary confinement.

I was to be left there for seven days, existing on bread and water three times a day fed to me through a slot at the bottom of the door. It was dark, lonely, and cold in there. I cried for my mother and my father. I wished and prayed hard that they would come and take me from here. I don’t belong here.

My sister Tracy, I later learned, received the same treatment on her side of the school.

On the seventh day, they opened the big door and I was instantly blinded by the daylight which seemed to hit me like the big principal had and I threw myself into the corner. They grabbed my ankles and dragged me out and back into the school.

Since then, we just did what we were asked. We stayed low and watched other kids who ran away and brought back receive the same treatment. Then, with spirits bent like mine, they would lay low. Some even stopped speaking altogether.

On the days when we would have some reprieve and were able to visit one another, usually before Sunday School, Tracy would visit with me. Slowly, over time, we developed a plan.

We would leave when the spring was shifting into summer and the strawberries were beginning to blossom. We would leave at night just after lights out. Tracy helped me to realize that each night during lights out, the teacher on duty would enter our dormitory to check that everyone was in their beds.

“The teacher enters a door on one end of the dorm. That door slowly swings closed and it takes exactly five seconds before the door swings shut and locks. She always walks through the dorm and exits the door on the opposite side. You have five seconds to get through that door, quietly, without being seen,” Tracy said.

That would be next month. We would travel light. She would take a coil of wire and string from the farm shop and an empty tin of syrup for cooking and to hold drinking water.

She asked me to take a match stick from the kitchen. One per day for three months. And to hide them in a small canister behind the school near the trash bins and slop bucket disposal area. This would be to build fires, for cooking only.

The days crawled slowly along like a snake without hope. I grew antsy at the prospect of leaving here. I was beginning to forget what my parents looked like. Would I recognize them when I returned home? What if they don’t recognize me?

Finally, the time came for our plan to be unfurled like a blanket of hope.

I did as I was asked and slipped deftly through the open door and walked gingerly down the stairs, out the back door and into the night.

Tracy met me by the trash bins and I fumbled for the match canister hidden in a crevice underneath the slop buckets.

Two years older, two years wiser, we didn’t use the main entrance for our escape. We also didn’t walk on the highway unless it was absolutely necessary.

We walked for much of the night and that morning we ate the apples that we had stolen from the school pantry. We avoided the road and stayed in the wooded area, parallel.

After our feed of apples, we settled down in a small glen near a farm. We both fell asleep for a time before Tracy roused me and once more we were off on our journey home.

We walked for four days and four nights, sleeping only occasionally. Along the way Tracy taught me many things that my parents had taught her about surviving in the bush.

We caught fish in a stream with our bare hands. Then, we placed it between some big leaves from the wild ginger plant and cooked it beneath the coals of a fire. It was delicious.

We drank cedar tea for medicine. It was rich in vitamins and prevented us from getting sick.

Tracy thought of everything. She had even ripped out a map of our area from an encyclopedia and we were able to navigate our way north toward home.

On that fifth day, we were so close to home. I imagined I could look into my mother’s eyes and hear her beautiful laugh. We must have become complacent and a bit reckless because our fire was burning too high and it led them to us. The police search party had located us. They swooped in and once more we were beaten and hauled back to the school.


Jeff's mom, Dorothy, passed away in her 50s. She only talked about her experiences in residential school late in her life. Like many, her body was marked by the scars from being beaten. She said many who escaped were never heard from again. "The sorrow is everlasting," she told Jeff. "I was never that little girl again, the one so full of hope. I wish more for my grandkids."



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