A Silenced Man

There was a hard knock on the door and they all looked at each other, dreading this moment.  The government and the church had come to take the children and the families had no choice but to let them go.   The First Nations and Metis were considered savages and it was decided by the government, the children needed to be taken away.  Take away to be converted by the church and integrated into a civilized Canadian society.

 Joseph Beaver was the oldest boy and at the age of 5 years old, he was already built strong and tall for his age. Joseph had dark kind eyes and a quick sense of humor and possessed a true love of hunting and riding horses.

They opened the door and the bright light spilled into the room, highlighting the dark shadows their figures made.   Fear filled the little boys’ heart as he tried so hard to be brave but once he saw the panic in his mother’s eyes, he ran to her.    They grabbed him from her hold and he screamed and kicked at them as they took him away.  He was forced out of his home with his mother’s cries being the last thing he heard.

 When he arrived on the doorsteps of St. John’s Mission Wapuskaw Residential School in 1928, he had nothing but the clothes on his back.  Joseph Beaver was greeted by a stern and angry looking woman.  She was dressed in a full-length black dress with a gold cross hanging loosely around her neck.  She looked down on him and he was instantly terrified of her.  She grabbed him by the ear and painfully twisted it as she ushered him inside the building.  “Go clean yourself,” she said as she pushed him forward giving him the harsh lye soap.  “Scrub your skin. You’re dirty. You’re a dirty Indian.  God doesn’t like the color of your skin, so wash it until you take all that filthy brown off”.  He had no idea what she said but somehow, he was filled with shame.

Once he finished, he was given someone else’s clothes to put on.  They were itchy, smelled funny and the pants were much too short.   Joseph was then taken into another room and was made to sit down on a wooden chair.  His whole body was shaking and even though he tried to stay brave as his mother would have wanted him to.  He couldn’t stop the tears that mixed in with the hair that fell down around his feet.

Joseph was directed into a common area, which was a larger room filled with kids like him of various ages. With his hand touching where hair used to be, he sheepishly walked in trying to be invisible.  A creak of a loose floorboard, betrayed him and announced his arrival and prompted the other children to look his way. They looked so sad and heartbroken and he wondered if he looked the same too.  He started to panic when an older boy walked up to him.   He looked around terrified, but relief flooded him as he was met with a grin.    The older boy motioned for him to follow him.  He led him to a quiet corner where he whispered to him in their own language words of advice.  He told him they were never allowed to speak in their language because they were there to learn English and the white people’s way because God thought they were savages.  If they spoke Cree, they would be severely punished and that was just the start of it.   As the older boy continued, Joseph shook his head; he had no understanding of what was happening to him or why.   He didn’t understand the world of the new language or why he was there.  All he knew was, he wanted to go home.

That first night haunted him for the rest of his life.  The cries and the screams that echoed with the wind closed in on him. His little hands covered his ears to drown out the noise.  Little did he know, in the years to come, he would later be another child adding his own voice to the screams heard throughout.

 The days started early with a routine of repeated hard labour and classes.  The rules were strict and punishment was sharp and fierce.

As the days and months went by, Joseph quickly learned more than just a new language from what they called the civilized world.  He learned about trauma and suffering, he learned abuse, shame and even death.

 Children of all ages were dying around him. Food was scarce and there was never enough to go around, and being hungry was now a constant way of life.   There were multiple outbreaks of tuberculosis as well as Smallpox.  Luckily, he wasn’t infected but if you could have asked him, he would have told you the children who died were the lucky ones.

There was a graveyard outback that grew in size over the years.   Children lay eternally in the ground marked by crosses, just like the ones the sisters wore around their necks.

One day he had the courage to ask one of the older kids why screams could be heard every night coming from a room in the cellar?   The older boy explained to him, one by one they were taken to what everyone called ‘the torcher room’.  He explained, children were beaten, raped and when the young girls had babies, they disappeared as soon as they were born.

Three weeks after Joseph arrived, two boys ran away, and as quickly as they fled, they were brought back and made examples of.  That night they were stripped down naked in front of everyone and beaten so badly, no one dared to ever leave again.

The church did not want the children and families to come in contact with each other for fear of the children resorting back to their savage ways.  The only time contact was allowed was once a year at Christmas time.  The children were allowed two days away If the parents could come and pick them up but if they weren’t returned in the two days, they would be put in jail.  Two days was never enough so parents didn’t come.

On the weekends there were no classes and after the Saturday morning chores were done, the kids would race across the schoolyard to peer through the fence that held them captive.   There across the road was a general store and the children would stand silent for hours hoping they would catch a glimpse of their parents going in.

One day, one beautiful and glorious day, Joseph saw his mother out of the corner of his eye coming out of the store.   She was walking in haste, her long hair blowing in the wind.  He had been waiting months for this day and there she was still as beautiful as the last time he had seen her.   He wanted her to notice him and he saw her looking over, but there were so many of them waiting and they all blended together.  He knew he couldn’t shout out to her, or there would be severe consequences.   He walked along the fence line, taking faster steps trying to get her attention but she never looked back again and disappeared down the road.

Nine years later Joseph Beaver was allowed to leave and return to his home in Sandy Lake.  He served the mandatory time allocated by the government and church and was given his freedom.  Freedom, what did that even mean? He may have been able to leave that place but he was never free again.   How does a young man of 14 years of age begin to integrate his broken heart and spirit back into a culture that had been stripped away?  How was he supposed to begin again?  Joseph lost so much of who he was and his family’s connection.  He had been taught for 9 years to hate the color of his skin and the shame and humiliation he carried within his dark shadows lasted a lifetime and he disappeared into himself.  He was stuck between two ways of life never knowing who he was.

Everything he should have been was stripped away and he never lived one single day as he should have.  Joseph Beaver only existed and walked the remainder of his life a silenced man…