Residential school survivor family gives mixed response to papal apology

Margaret and Maxie Simon at their home in Wawa.

Maxie Simon attended Spanish residential school in 1930s and 1940s

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor asked former staffer and long-time freelance writer Gina Gasongi Simon to ‘embed’ herself with her parents Maxie and Margaret Simon, during Pope Francis’ televised apology on Monday and to record their responses to his words. Those in need of emotional support can access the 24-hour national crisis line at 1-866-925-4419. Helps is available.

by Gina Gasongi Simon

SPECIAL TO THE EXPOSITOR

The human capacity to endure pain is so amazing, but what is more amazing is the resilience of children. The recent papal apology described as ‘penitential pilgrimage’ may or may not bring on the anticipated healing. Given the extraordinary pain that underlies this whole intense time for everyone, it’s another story with a backdrop of a hidden past. As my mom and I witness the televised widespread apology and outreach by the Pope and his representatives, my dad says, “The government and church can bury many things, but they cannot bury our spirits.”

As the Pope’s apology airs in the distance from Markakis, Alberta, I ask my father if he is going to come watch the televised moment. His response,  “I’m not interested. If he came to Spanish, maybe I would listen. We have plenty graves there needing attention.” As I mention, in some parts of the Pope’s speech he mentioned his apology’s purpose was for truth, reconciliation, justice and hope. To that my father interjects, “those of us still alive, our only hope is this never happens again to another child.”

My father, Maxie Simon (Mishibinijima) spent 13 years at the Garnier Boys Residential School, and my mother, Margaret (nee Peltier) spent 8 years at the Wikwemikong Indian Day School. Both have many childhood memories, some happy and some sad.

Manitoulin residents of a certain age will remember Maxie Simon as the best junior and senior Manitoulin hockey player of his time. He was invited to a Detroit Red Wings training camp but the CPR telegram remained at the Little Current telegraph office until after the camp ended.

My mother’s opinion of the Pope’s apology is more apprehensive, half accepting and half doubting, as she explains, “it can’t all be said at once, more will come out over time. That is how an apology happens. It will never go that far, it’s too much, they will never bury it, especially for the ones who were very hurt.” In the moment, she reflects on her childhood, “I wanted, I yearned, to attend the girls’ school in Spanish, like my older sister Rose Peltier.” In hindsight, she added “ I think my mother did not want me to go. She did what she had to do. She protected me from attending the residential school.”

Her mother Jane Zack (nee Manitowabi), my grandmother, attended the girls’ residential school in Wikwemikong in the early 1900s. She knew firsthand the secrets behind those closed doors. Once, while sharing pictures with her, a picture that depicted the remnants of the girls’ school in Spanish after the building was burned in 1981 with a loss of life of many people who lived in apartments in the repurposed old school, I recall her sharing the story of how Wikwemikong’s residential school was set on fire, not once but twice.

I recall my grandmother telling me about the fire and how no one said a word, no one admitted knowing anything about how it started. “After the second time a fire was set, they moved the school to Spanish. The fires never stopped the pain, they just took the children further away from home,” she said.

My mother recalls being envious of her siblings, Clem, Ernest and sister Rose who attended the Spanish residential boys’ and girls’ school approximately 160 km away. Mom remembers how when they returned home, certain girls had changed. “They seemed distant when they came home. They did not want to speak our language, Anishnabemowin. They did not want to associate with us. They wanted to dress different, and they acted different.”

The whole process and purpose of Indian residential schools still burns a hole in my heart. The thought of an imposed system based on fear and shame does not make any sense to me, it angers me. I can see and feel the impact of Indian residential schools. The divide it caused; the scars still cut deep for generations. Although mother was never beaten or strapped, she witnessed other children, like Joe Louie Aminamikwan being violently slapped around by Father Joe Dwyer until he bled. “We did not say a thing. We were so scared. There was nothing we could do. They were the “boss” she said. Other children, like her sister Annie Jackson, spoke of Ms. Ojriscul who was known to physically abuse the children.

Her brothers didn’t stay at Spanish residential school, only spent a few years. Her sister Rose excelled at the school and graduated with honours. Every child in the community was expected to go to church, regularly, sometimes twice a day, my mother recalls. “If we didn’t go to church, Father Dwyer came to the school and strapped the children. My mother, Jane, made us go to church, so we would be spared from being sent to Spanish.”

My father, Maxie, was taken from his grandparents at the age of five to the boys’ residential school in Spanish in 1938. It was the early years of unconditional love he received from his mother Sophie and his grandparents, Frank and Rosalie Mishibinijima that sustained him behind those walls. “My favourite place was riding on the buggy snuggled between my grandparents” my father fondly recalls.

After he arrived at the school, it was a different story. “We were the child labour. We moped floors, swept classrooms, farmed and weeded gardens. When I first arrived, I was so small my first job was to clean candles.” He spent years working in the carpentry and blacksmith shops.

When news broke of the graves being discovered across the country, dad said, “Its good, because it brought attention to what was really happening at the residential schools. Everybody wanted to get in on the action and make amends. Some of those ‘son-of-a-guns,’ as he refers to them, caused, “all the bullshit” like “Father Hawkins, he was the devil. We called him ‘jimnedo’ and he took great pleasure in beating children. Why didn’t they do something else, why did they beat us?” my father expressed his disdain on Monday as the Pope spoke.

He recalls a moment of victory, when he was about 15 years old, “Father Hannon had taken over the role of Dean and responsible for strapping the boys as punishment.” One day, dad had enough and when asked to put out his hand, he refused. “Father Hannon hit me across the face. I stared him down and dared him to do it again. He didn’t do anything, just stood there and finally told me to get out!”

He told the one priest he could trust, Father Maurice, what had occurred and knew it was a breaking moment and one of his first challenges to the abusers, men like Father Hannon. Father Maurice, he was a favourite among the young boys. He provided an outlet on the ice, a place of freedom. Dad remembers lacing up with a pair of skates, that Father Maurice spilled out of a burlap bag. “We all grabbed a pair, didn’t matter if they fit or not, we would pack them with paper or rags.”

The boys from Spanish, Garnier School were quite accomplished on the ice, and games were organized by local towns to challenge this prolific hockey team. Dad remembers the fans’ racist taunts, but he was there to play hockey and hockey he played. His finesse on the ice and talent to score was locally renowned. He spent years playing Island-wide and was chosen by local teams in nearby cities and towns. His talent caught the eye of NHL scouts and he and fellow student, Frankie Commanda went on to try out for the Detroit Red Wings back in the late ‘40s.

Other chores included cutting wood in the wintertime and haying in the spring. During these times, the boys did have some good times away from the school. On one occasion, after dance lessons with Father Rushman, “he taught us boys to fox trot and waltz…he would tie a cassock on us and grab each on of us, 1-2-3; 1-2-3 until we got the steps just right.”

Many times, the boys went to bed hungry. They had to be creative and resort to other means to get enough food. “We would let the baseball go over the fence, it would land in the vegetable garden, and we would jump the fence, grab whatever we could and hide it. One day we were boiling eggs in the chicken coup; we put them in a pail to sneak up to the dorm. We seen Brother Mousseau coming across the field to see us and check on our egg collecting. He brought crates and we put all the boiled eggs in the crates, nailed them down and they were shipped off to the nuns in North Bay.”

A letter received shortly after, read “Thank you for the eggs. They were delicious, especially the boiled ones. Luckily we were never punished”, said dad.

Another good memory was the meals after hockey, special treatment for the hockey players if they won their game. Otherwise “we went to bed hungry,” recalls my dad. Another fond memory was during haying season, with Brother Vandermore. “He took us to Walford to gather hay for the school’s cows and horses. “He packed a full lunch in a big can. Homemade bread, fresh butter, some type of meat and boiled eggs. After we finished our delicious meal, we climbed into the hay piled on the wagon, snuggled up and headed back to the school.

The punishments inflicted on these boys at times were harsh, from food deprivation to physical and emotional tactics. For example, “there was a play being put on with the younger boys. In this one scene, the boys were locked up in the jail. And one young boy pipes up, “Oh well, its better than eating beans every day,” dad recalls his comment being met with resounding laughter from the audience.

After that play, Father Hannon put the beans away down in the basement. “No more beans” says dad, “And that was our best meal, Mondays, Tuesdays and Sundays. So, one day, a bunch of us marched through the kitchen, the cooked called out, ‘Where you boys going?’ ‘Looking for beans,’ we replied. Sure enough, we found 10 barrels of beans hidden in the basement. We were brought in one by one to answer to Father Hannon.”

“There was no mercy for us. Any child suffering from bed wetting had to go to the barn and get straw for their mattress and they were only allowed to change their straw once a week. No comfort for them, nobody to ask them what was wrong, what was bothering them” recalls dad.

Another occasion dad recalls, “we were fed soup made from cocoa. That was all we had for dinner,” he sadly recalled.  But it was their resilient humour that kept them going. As dad remembers Gordon Manitowabi jokingly saying under his breath, “Where is the chicken in this soup, all I can see is a few feathers.”

Like dad said, not every priest or brother was mean. One priest, Father Vanderiss, was referred to as one of the evil ones. “I remember he told us boys to hitch up the horses, it was 4 am. He proceeded to whip them horses. He whipped them like hell, and soon the horses, wagon and all flipped over. Us boys were terrified. When that old priest died, a few of the boys, took a few shots at his corpse as pay back for all his beatings,” states dad.

Dad shared another profound moment when facing his abusers. “It was after graduating from Spanish. I was about 18 years old. I went to the rectory in Wikwemikong. Father Hawkins was there and I asked to see him. He came to the door, and I told him who I was. He pretended he did not know me, nor did he remember me. It took all me and my strength to submerge the rage boiling inside me. I wanted to just punch him in the face, beat him up, but part of me could see his was sick and now old. I don’t know how he could stand there and pretend he didn’t know me. No acknowledgement. Why?”

Why did any of this have to happen? I know many of my parents’ questions, nor mine, will ever be answered. Nor will the whole truth come out. As for justice, it is said: we may not pay in this world, but we will in another.

As a gesture of gratitude and reconciliation, my parents wish to say, “Miigwetch to all those who have listened and believed us. To the other survivors who have endured and to those who suffered in silence, speak up—don’t let this ever happen again. We still have hope. We have somehow managed to continue to speak our language. Regrettably, we did not pass the language on to our children, but we did pass on our Anishnaabe pride, our love and our identity.”

Maxie and Margaret Simon live in Wawa, Ontario, where Max retired from the Algoma Ore Division. They raised 10 children, 18 grand children, 21 great grandchildren and will be celebrating 70 years of marriage on September 15, 2022.