Nuxalk Residential School Survivors share their stories
There are many Residential School Survivors in the Nuxalk Nation. Here are just two of their stories. The Coast Mountain News thanks Lorraine Tallio and Leonard Pootlass for sharing their experiences. The words reprinted here are their own.
Leonard Pootlass is 67 years old. He has four children and 13 grandchildren. He and his wife, Stella, have been married for 37 years. Last week, he made a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about what happened to him in residential school. It was one of the very few times he has spoken about it.
Even those closest to him, including his wife and children, did not know the truth about his past. His wife remembers being confused by his angry behaviour and his children wondered why he would never embrace them. “We didn’t know,” said Stella. “He never discussed it with us, never.”
Leonard was 5 years old when he was taken away to residential school in Port Alberni. He was a small child, crippled, and had braces on his legs to get around. Before he left, he spent all his time with his grandfather.
“I was raised by my grandfather,” Leonard remembers. “This was all I knew. My parents were drinking, so he took care of me. Packed me around, took me to potlatches. We only spoke Nuxalk, I hardly knew English before I left.”
At the school in Port Alberni, he was beaten daily because he couldn’t speak English. He also wet his bed repeatedly, and was forced by the staff to wash his own sheets in the tub. At the same time, staff would punish him by holding his head under the water. Leonard thought he might die. “I think they might have killed me if no one else was there,” he said. “It was not human, what they did to me, I was only 5 years old.”
The punishments were daily. He recounts a sensation of always having a mouth full of blood because he was struck in the face so often for being slower than the other children. “I think that’s why I lost all my teeth at a young age,” he says.
He would constantly seek out a dark place to hide, such as under a bed or in a closet. The practice continued when he came home. “It was the only way I could get comfortable,” he says. “I would stay in the closet at home all day in the dark, I felt safe there.”
After about a year in Port Alberni, Leonard was moved to St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay. It was a crowded place, with up to 50 boys in one dorm. The abuse continued, and Leonard remembers a feeling of always being hungry.
“They basically gave us enough food to keep us alive,” he says. “There was worms in the porridge. At first we would pick them out, but after a while we didn’t care anymore, we were so hungry, and it was food.” Every afternoon a staff member would dole out biscuits around 3pm and the children would swarm him, running after him like dogs.
“It was a hell hole,” he recalls. “No one showed us any compassion, no love. There was even abuse between the students. Nobody cared enough to stop it, because they were doing the same thing.”
Leonard had three brothers in Alert Bay. He has since lost one to suicide; the other two drank themselves to death. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says. “So many of the other students are dead. I went to a gathering for former students and I asked about them, I knew their names, and they were all gone.”
He credits his wife with providing him with the strength to continue. “She’s a strong person,” he says. “She puts up with me, even though I never told her what happened.”
When he left the school at age 13 he returned to Bella Coola, but he had lost the ability to speak his language. His parents, having also gone to residential school, were still drinking, and he became an alcoholic. “An alcoholic, like every Indian is,” he says. “You wonder why after living in a place like that?”
It’s been 54 years since he left the school, and it follows him around every day. He’s tried counseling, and says he will continue to try, for the sake of his grandchildren. “It’s hurtful and painful, and I never got any answers, but I’m still here.”
It was 1954 when the Indian Agents came to take Lorraine Tallio away. Although it happened over half a century ago, it is still an intensely painful subject for her to discuss.
“I was living with my great-grandparents at the time because my parents were drinking so much,” she recalls. “I don’t remember much about the day they took me away, just that we were taken on a boat to Port Hardy and then to the residential school in Port Alberni.”
The Port Alberni Residential School was run by the United Church from 1920 to 1973, and is particularly notorious for abuse. There are dozens of allegations of abuse leveled at school principals, supervisors, and the federal government. Hundreds of students from all over the province attended the school.
The school was ceremoniously torn down in 2009 and a totem pole, carved by a survivor, was raised in its place. The site now houses only two remaining buildings.
Having already suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, Lorraine was subject to more of the same at the school. A male employee sexually abused her and many other girls on a daily basis.
“He would come and get me from the dorms and take me to his office, or on a ‘walk,’ where he would abuse me,” she recounts. “The superiors knew this was going on, but I was not allowed to talk about. I suffered through this abuse during my entire time at the school.”
Students came from all over the province, and boys and girls were separated into dorms. Much of the teaching was religious-based instruction, and the children were required to do chores and help prepare meals in the kitchen. Lorraine immediately bonded with another girl her age, Winnie Ven. “Winnie and I took to one another right away,” she says.
Because Bella Coola was so far away, Lorraine wasn’t permitted to go home for holidays. Instead, she and Winnie were repeatedly placed in the home of Grace and Ned Sampson, who lived in Cumberland - about an hour’s drive outside of Port Alberni. “They were always kind to me,” said Lorraine. After repeated visits, they began exploring their options for adopting Lorraine.
This prospect of adoption angered her father back home in Bella Coola and in 1957 he decided to remove her from the school. Lorraine was 12 when she finally returned to her home community, where the abuse from her father continued.
At 17, Lorraine married and began having children of her own. By the age of 27 she had had six girls and she was drinking heavily to deal with her pain.
“The Ministry came and told me that if my husband and I couldn’t quit drinking, they would take our children away,” Lorraine said. They quit almost immediately and began attending church. “It was hard, we had to change our entire lives,” she recalls. “I had certain friends that I never saw again.”
Around the age of 30, Lorraine had quit drinking for good, but the abuse within her family continued to spiral out of control. “My father had been abusing other family members repeatedly, and some of my family suffered abuse at the hands of people we trusted,” she explains. “The situation was so bad. I knew I had to break the cycle.”
She began working at the hospital in 1987, where she crossed paths with local physician Harvey Thommasen. At his encouragement, they began to have regular counseling sessions to deal with her past. “At first we could only meet for 15 minutes at a time,” she said. “There was so much coming up, we would both be overwhelmed so quickly, we just couldn’t take anymore.”
However, the sessions proved to be life changing, and with Harvey’s encouragement, Lorraine, along with other family members, decided to press charges against her father. After an extremely difficult trial, her father was sentenced to two years at Matsqui Federal Prison.
“The emotional pain was so bad,” Lorraine recalls, visibly shaken. “I was one of the first people to expose the abuse in this community. I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I did.”
Lorraine’s father died in 2000, and it was only then that she learned the truth of his past, something she and her sisters had long suspected. “I received a call from a friend of my father’s in Bella Bella,” she explains. “He confirmed that our father had gone to residential school as well, and was viciously abused. A fellow survivor had witnessed him being dragged out of the dorm at night, screaming.”
It has been over 50 years since Lorraine left residential school, and yet that experience continues to impact her on a daily basis, as it did her father before her. Her brave choice to share her years of suffering is the embodiment of the term ‘residential school survivor,’ and yet she still struggles with bouts of depression and talks about how she felt as though no one loved her.
“Residential school took away my ability to trust. An apology doesn’t even come close. Money isn’t anything. What’s done is done,” she says. “Now, if I can save even just one child from being abused, that’s what matters.”