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Squamish Nation survivor of St. Paul's residential school shares his story

With the recent findings of unmarked graves at former residential schools in British Columbia, Squamish Nation Elder Sam George says he has a lot of unanswered questions from his time at St. Paul's Indian Residential School

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The day Sam George’s dad walked him and his three siblings to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School is still as clear as ever in his mind.

It was 1952 and George was just seven years old. He remembers thinking they were all taking a walk to his grandmother’s house who lived just down the block, until they went past her house and up the hill.

“The residential school was about three or four blocks away from where we lived,” George said. “We knew it was up there. I remember asking my mom where so and so went and she just said, ‘they went to school.’”

He recalled he wasn’t feeling happy as they continued to walk.

“You knew just by my dad's actions, something different was going to happen, by the vibes, I guess,” George continued.

He said his father never really said goodbye when they were dropped off.

“I remember my dad going into a little room and I could see him,” George said. “He was signing papers. When he finished signing papers, he looked at us and he said, ‘You kids be good and listen.’

“He looked at the nun, Mother Michaela, and said, ‘take care of my kids.’ And he turned and walked out.”

St. Paul's Indian Residential School was just one of 139 federally funded Christian institutions in Canada where thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were forced to attend as part of a compulsory program to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society, which began in the late 1800s. Children were stripped of their culture and native languages and forced to convert to Christianity. Many suffered physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at the hands of nuns as well as serious health issues, including malnutrition, due to neglect.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned home. Some died of diseases like tuberculosis, while others died trying to run away. In many cases, parents didn’t find out what happened to their children, and the names of those who died weren’t even recorded. Current estimates put the number of children who died across the country at between 4,100 and 6,000, but the numbers are believed to be much greater.

There were 18 residential schools in B.C. St. Paul’s, which was located on the 500-block of West Keith Road in North Vancouver, was the only institution in the Metro Vancouver area. It was run by the Catholic Church for 60 years.

From 1898 to 1959, more than 2,000 First Nations children are estimated to have been taken from their families and sent to live at the institution, mostly from Squamish Nation, but also from Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Sechelt nations. 

The site is now home to St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary, where a monument stands in memory of those forced to attend the residential school that once stood in its place.

It wasn't until 1984 that all residential schools in B.C. were closed down; the last one in Canada didn't close until 1996.

George and his siblings along with many of his cousins attended St. Paul’s in its last eight years of operation.

“It wasn't a school,” George said. “It was a place to kill the Indian in us. You know, I learned how to read and write. But at what price?”

Memories of his time at the institution came flooding back to the 77-year-old Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) Elder when Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared the heartbreaking news of the discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at the end of May. A further three nations have since announced their own such findings, with close to 1,000 unmarked graves now discovered at former residential school sites in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

“It’s been an emotional time,” George said, who recently visited a memorial in Kamloops with his two sons to help process his feelings. It has been a difficult road for George, but after many years he is now able to speak openly about his experience. 

‘We were punished, and we didn’t know why’

From the first day he arrived at St Paul’s he was subject to physical abuse.

“The nuns, right away, let us know that everything they said or told us to do we had to do it,” he said.

“If we didn't do it fast enough, we were shaken, or had our hair or ears pulled. We’d be told to go and kneel in the corner facing the wall. In school, it would be a slap on the wrist. I am deaf in my right ear from being slapped in the ear and the head, and my left ear rings constantly.”

Being so young, George remembers feeling confused and not knowing how to respond to what was happening.

“A lot of times we were punished, and we didn't even know why,” he said. 

‘She made me feel like it was my fault’

George was about 13 years old when the sexual abuse started. At the time, he wasn’t aware it was happening to other children too.

“I didn't know,” he said. “I thought it was just me. But I suspect there were [others] because around the nun’s bedroom, there was a door coming into our dormitory and she moved special children close to her bedroom.”

He said one day he was moved from the opposite end of the dormitory to a new room after another boy ran away.

“I suspect because he was being sexually abused,” he said.

“She [the nun] told me to move my bedding to that bed.”

He doesn’t recall how long after the sexual abuse started.

“It involved her waking me up and putting me in her bed and making me do things that I never knew,” George explained

From then on, George said he felt “condemned.”

“They [the nuns] repeatedly told us that if we did this and did that before you're married, you were condemned to hell. And because it was with one of the nuns, I [thought I] was definitely going to hell, because she made me feel like it was my fault.”

‘They said she ran away’

When George thinks about some of the things that happened at the institution, he still has a lot of unanswered questions.

One of them is, “what happened to Pearl?”

George remembers Pearl as a shy girl who kept to herself but would always say hello as he walked by.

“She sat by herself a lot,” he said. “She was very quiet. For some reason, when I’d come by, she would say, ‘Hi Sammy’ sort of like I was her only friend. I don't know that though.

“But she was alone a lot and she disappeared. They said she ran away.”

He said he wondered what happened to her because when he and others would run away the RCMP were quick to come and collect them. George attempted to run away twice, once back to his home in North Vancouver when he was around eight or nine, and a second time to his mom’s home in Upper Squamish with his cousins when he was 11 or 12.

“The RCMP came and I was introduced to these small handcuffs,” he recalled. “They put the handcuffs on me and put me in the back of the car. They drove me up to the residential school and took the handcuffs off in front of everybody and I was brought in front of all the boys and I got struck.

“The same thing happened when I ran away to my mom's.”

Another question that now lingers on George’s mind is, “why did a nun have me and my brother dig a hole?’

“One time my brother and I were playing on the swings and the nun called us and she brought us down to, it was called the vegetable garden, and we had to dig a hole about four feet long and maybe two feet wide and about three or four feet deep,” George said, adding he was about 12 years old at the time.

“And my brother said, ‘what's this for, sister? The sister stood there watching us, and she said, ‘it's for garbage.’ And we never thought anything of it. After we finished it, she said, ‘OK – go on now.’”

He hadn’t really thought about it for a while until the Kamloops discovery. He is in full support of the St. Paul’s site being examined to find the truth.  

“When this all started happening, I started thinking about what happened to Pearl,” he said.

While the federal government has dedicated $27 million to the TRC Calls to Action relating to missing children and burial sites and has committed to helping communities uncover the truth, George believes their response has been too slow. There’s a lot of changes he’d like to see, including the abolishment of the Indian Act.

“I know nothing would have been said or done if them grave sites [in Kamloops] weren't found,” he said. “That's basically the way they've been. There’s always red tape.”

Sam George 2 Squamish Nation Elder Sam George is a survivor of St. Paul's Indian Residential School which was located in North Vancouver.  photo Paul McGrath, North Shore News

‘When I came out, I didn't want to be an Indian’

It would be a few years, after digging the hole, that George would finally leave the institution behind when it closed in 1959. His life, however, wouldn’t get easier anytime soon, with deep-rooted anger and pain stemming from his years of “physical, emotional, cultural and sexual abuse” leading to a cycle of alcohol and drug use for many years throughout his adult life.

When he left the institution, he was turning 15 years old. By this point, his parents had separated, “because they had no children to take care of.”

His dad “was hardly ever home” and it was just George and his brother looking out for each other.

“I would just wander around with a lot of the other boys who were in the same position until maybe 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and I started drinking,” he said. “I got into trouble a lot and I went to jail.”

George would end up spending four and a half years behind bars from age 15 to 20 for two separate charges involving acts of violence and for stealing a car with a group of boys to go on a joy ride.

But at the time, he said he preferred being in jail over the institution, for one – “the food was a lot better.”

Before he got in trouble with the law, he had been eating “the same thing” for eight years. He remembers the exact menu.

“Every morning we got hot oatmeal or hot cereal,” George said. “We called it mush. For lunch, we got two or three pieces of stew meat, maybe with two or three pieces of potato in there, some carrots or celery in greasy water. One slice of bread with margarine on it and a glass of powdered milk.

“Dinner was the same thing.”

It was never enough for any of them to feel satisfied.

“We were always hungry,” he said. “We used to go down to the vegetable garden and steal food because we couldn't have it.”

George faced many emotional hurdles as he grew into adulthood. Having been stripped of his culture at the institution, he turned away from the Squamish way of life.

“When I came out, I did not want to be an Indian,” he said. “They succeeded with what their purpose was: Kill the Indian in the child. I was ashamed. I tried to dress differently. I didn't hang around with a lot of my family or friends. I tried to hang around with non-natives, white people. But they always let me know who I was.

“I was the Indian.”

For a long while, he was “heavy into drinking and heavy into drugs” to numb the pain.

The abuse and separation from siblings at the institution would go on to affect George’s future family bonds and romantic relationships. He would also separate from his wife, the mother of his two children.

“I've been engaged, I don’t know how many times, and married four times but you know, I couldn't love them because I didn't love myself,” George said.

“But I always wanted somebody or something, there was a wanting to be loved because when you're going through residential school, you’re just dirty, you're ugly, you’re a savage, you're stupid.

“And, after a while, you get to believe that.”

Returning to his Squamish culture

It wasn’t until George was 45 years old that he got serious about returning to his culture and getting clean. Before that he said he just dabbled in and out of it over the years as he struggled to overcome his addictions.

“When I did come back to my culture it helped me change,” he said, adding that he was re-initiated and began enjoying the culture once more with family and friends and getting involved with singing, drumming, and dancing.

From returning to his people, he also started going to sweat lodges as a form of spirituality and to help with his healing.

“I also found a Creator, rather than a punishing God,” he said, having left his addictions behind over 30 years ago now.

In 2008, the Canadian government apologized in Parliament and admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools.

Through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the largest class action settlement in Canadian history to date, which recognized the damage inflicted on Indigenous peoples by residential schools and established a multibillion-dollar fund to help survivors in their recovery, George would eventually be granted $150,000 after giving a painful testimony.

But the money never healed his pain.

Speaking out

It took many years before George spoke out about his experience to others, aside from relaying the atrocities to the IRSSA.

In his younger years he said he “never even thought to look for help.”

“I didn't understand it, that's for sure, and it was the guilt and shame,” he said.

Not even his own two sons, now in their 50s, would know the extent of their father’s trauma until a lot later in life.

“It's not so emotional anymore,” George said when asked what it is like to talk about his time at St. Paul’s now.

“When I first started talking about it, you know, I'd almost cry. But now, I've accepted that it’s in the past.”

A longshoreman for over 40 years, George was also a Squamish Nation councillor for a time and has helped others as a drug and alcohol counsellor through Alcoholics Anonymous. He also brings awareness to what happened at residential institutions through talks at schools and in the community.

It was about 15 years ago that he began opening up and sharing his story more widely when he was asked to work with the Residential Schools Society. He said he was “very frank and honest” when telling his truth at schools, including Langara College, UBC, SFU, and various secondary schools.

Sharing his story with others became part of George’s healing process. “I was finally realizing why I was the way I was,” he said. “Why I had anger and why I rebelled against authorities, or, you know, why authority made me angry.”

When sharing his story, having recently spoken at the Vancouver Arts Centre and the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, George said there was one question that always came up from the crowd – “how are you doing now?”

“I think, you know, I’m finally getting it together, now I’m 77,” he said.

“I accept what happened. I don't live there anymore. I try not to because it’s too hard on my mind and my body.

“You know, I enjoy life. Not all the time, but I think there's more happiness.”

For immediate assistance to those who may need it, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.