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Skye shares painful residential school experiences

Leonard Skye attended St. Mary’s Residential School for five years. Photo submitted

This article was prepared by Spuro Sourtzis for Dryden High School’s online local history project. You can more of his articles at — Ed.

By Spuro Sourtzis

This is a brief account of Leonard Skye’s life with an emphasis on his experiences in Residential School. Len’s recollections are disturbing because his experience at Residential School was traumatizing. He experienced both physical and emotional abuse. It is important that his experiences be brought to light, so that everyone, those of both First Nations descent, and European descent, can better understand the predicament that many First Nations people find themselves today.

Leonard Skye was born on December 12, 1948 at the Dryden Hospital. His parents were from the Eagle Lake First Nation. At the age of five, he was sent to Saint Mary’s Residential School in Kenora to attend grade one. At the time, there were numerous Residential schools in the area; Pellican Falls Residential School located in Sioux Lookout, McIntosh Residential School, just north of Vermilion Bay and Cecilia Jeffry Residential School which was also located in Kenora.

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Duncan Campbell Scott, who was a writer during the 1950s and later the Minister of Indian Affairs, wrote that the goal of Residential School was to remove the culture and language from the First Nations person. In more blunt terms, he wrote that the goal was to “take the Indian out of the Indian”.

There were First Nations students from as far away as the province of Quebec who attended the Residential schools here in the Northwest. Parents had no choice but to send their children to Residential School. The children were taken away from their families and put up in the boarding accommodations provided by the Residential School. Parents would come and visit their children only on occasion or when they could afford the transportation costs. As St. Mary’s Residential School was relatively close to Eagle Lake, Leonard was able to spend his summers with his parents. However, those children who came from distant homes such as Quebec were not able to visit their parents and were forced to stay in the dormitories at Residential School all summer.

A typical day in Residential School was very regimented. Every day the pupils were awoken at 5:00 a.m. and were required to do chores for two hours. Some of the chores consisted of sweeping the dormitory and playroom, cleaning the washrooms and taking the garbage to the dump. Saturdays entailed more detailed cleaning of the assigned areas such as the playroom or the living room. According to Leonard, the goal of this structured home cleaning was to produce a cheap labour force that would have been trained to perform such menial tasks. Leonard remembers the school being very clean. Students were physically reprimanded if they did not finish their chores in the allotted time, or if the chores were not completed up to standards.

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Leonard mentioned his father’s experience in Residential School. The school was located on a farm and the pupils were trained in farm work such as feeding the horses, chickens and pigs. Regularly cleaning of the animal’s stalls was also required. Furthermore, the pupils were taught to grow and tend a garden. The goal here was to produce self-sustaining farmers. But that was a failure as very few First Nations peoples today are employed as farmers. Leonard’s father did not conform and refused to perform these tasks. He simply ran away from the Residential School he was attending.

After the approximately two hour cleaning routine, Leonard explained how they were given a ten or fifteen minute break for personal hygiene. Their hands had to be clean, their finger nails cut short and clean and their hair had to be brushed. Residential School pupils who did not finish their chores or whose hygiene was not up to standard were also punished and often denied breakfast. He described one such punishment where students were made to stand against a wall for a good period of time.

Before breakfast, a roll call was performed. The pupils would stand at attention in a military format and a head count was done. This was done to ensure that all were accounted for, and no pupil had run away from the School. As Leonard recalled, breakfast usually consisted of tasteless porridge. After breakfast, students were given free time to prepare themselves for class which started at 9:00 a.m.

The curriculum was similar to non-Residential schools in that Mathematics and English were taught, but St. Mary’s Residential School had a very substantial emphasis on Religious studies, particularly the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Students were expected to be pious and to follow the beliefs of the Church. Girls were taught to sew, with the idea of becoming a seamstress as an occupation. Girls were also taught other domestic duties. There was also the opportunity to learn a second or third language such as French. However, speaking Ojibway was strictly prohibited and discipline was severe if even one word of Ojibway was spoken.

Leonard remembered that bullying was tolerated at the school. The older students would bully, by name calling and punching, the younger students and those who did not do the accepted things

Lunch was served at noon and Len recalls being served a flavourless meat pie. Students returned to the classroom at 1:00 p.m. for classes that continued until 4:00 p.m.

From 4:00 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. was a study period for the entire school. There were tutors who would help with mathematics concepts, but who were not very understanding. They would hit and call a student names if they did not master the concepts that were taught.

There were also “boys’ keepers” in the school, who Leonard recalled as being similar to prison guards. Their role was not to support the students, but rather to keep them in line. They would often dole out physical punishment to those who did not comply with their demands.

Of particular interest was that names were not used when addressing a student. Instead, the students were assigned a number and all clothing was marked with that number using a black marker. Leonard was number thirteen and his shirt, socks and pants were marked with the number thirteen. We can easily understand the intention of addressing someone, not by their name, but by a meaningless number.

Supper hour was from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. Again, Len recalled tasteless meals.

From the 5:00 a.m. awakening until 7:00 p.m. the day was very structured and there was not a lot of choice in activities being offered. However, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. there was the opportunity to participate and learn about an activity that interested a student. Len’s chosen activity was hockey. Len played right wing. One of the boys’ keepers was the coach. St. Mary’s hockey team was victorious in all the tournaments held in the Kenora region. One player who Len knew, Vernon Mainville from the Couchiching First Nation had a stint with the Detroit Red Wings. But when he joined the team he found himself very lonely and he returned to the Northwest. Len had an invitation to play with the Peterborough Petes but his parents could not afford to send him to southern Ontario to play with the Junior A hockey team. Len also made the NCAA hockey Minnesota Golden Gophers. But because of Len’s “poor attitude” he was released from the team. As a young man, Len felt “invincible” which often put him in conflict with those in authority.

Len attended St. Mary’s Residential School for 5 years, from grade 1 to Grade 6. After that, he attended St. Joe’s school here in Dryden. Compared to St. Mary’s, St. Joe’s was a breath of fresh air in that there was so much freedom and much less discipline. While at St. Joe’s, Len met and became good friends with Dr. Michael Cortens, Rick Makuch and Alvin Sesuinas. Len spent two years, grade seven and eight, at St. Joe’s school.

Len then graduated from DHS. He continued his studies at Lakehead University where he received his specialist degree in teaching the Ojibway language. He has had a successful career in education here in Dryden.

He has also had the opportunity to be a guest of honour at some prestigious academic gatherings. He was guest lecturer at the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona. At the Duluth Minnesota Medical school, he helped to honour Dr. Arne Vana, who received a state award. Leonard had the opportunity to present her with an Eagle feather and felt honoured to speak to the staff and students.

Leonard still faces depression and anxiety, as a result of Residential School. Both Leonard and his wife Edith see themselves as Residential School survivors. They each understand what the other went through and help each other during bouts of depression and deep sadness.


2 thoughts on “Skye shares painful residential school experiences

  1. The article of Leonard Skye & his residential schooling was very saddening to read. The abuse inflicted upon these little children was horrendeous!! Can you imagine sending your children off to places like this?? I cannot— and the government of the day was never held accountable for these outrageous acts nor were the churches that also ran the institutions. I commend Leonard for having toughed it out and becoming the person he is today as an educator himself, with integrety and strong beliefs in the education system.

    Betty-Lynn Sharp

  2. Just read the article of Leonard Skyke and his residential schooling. It is saddening to read about the abuse that these little children had to go through. The government of the day was never held accountable for these outrageous acts nor for that matter, were the churches that ran these institutions. Todays government cannot ever make up for the hardship inflicted upon these people. Can you imagine sending your children to places like this? I cannot.

    BettyLynn Sharp

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