Former day school students gather in preparation for settlement

Nora Martin, May 14, 2019

Former Opitsaht Day School Students Sherry Brown, Terry Masso, Cooks Assistant Kathleen Barker, Ann Barker, Louise Martin and Alice George. (Nora Martin photo)

Opitsaht, BC — 

This week an Agreement in Principle is being heard in court to finalize a settlement for former students of Indian day schools.  

From April 29 to May 3 former students of the Opitsaht Day School gathered in Ty Histanis, Opitsaht and Port Alberni for updates on the class action lawsuit and to share their experiences.

The Opitsaht Day School was built in 1957 and closed in 1971. Children usually began attending Grade 1 or close to their sixth birthday.

Gowling WLG, the law firm representing former students, and the Government of Canada have reached an Agreement in Principle and are in court May 13-15 to finalize.  The law firm is sending out notices to those involved on the next steps. Once the agreement is finalized former students do not require a lawyer to fill out an application form.

Tsow-Tun Le Lum cultural support workers provided assistance and brushings during the four days of gatherings, which made a huge difference for the former students.

During the gatherings many of the former students recollected the atrocities that occurred at the day school. These include lining up outside the school and being sprayed with Raid (insect poison) before entry into the school, daily prayers, standing to attention and singing God Save The Queen, daily strappings, standing in the corner for what seemed like hours, being hit on the head for looking out the window with a lead sided ruler, ridicule, humiliation as well as hair and ear pulling by teachers.

The former students spoke of not being allowed to use the bathroom, and were punished by writing on the chalk board “I will not be late” and other sayings up to 100 times in front of the class. They recalled teachers yelling, screaming and slamming a yardstick on the desks. At meal times they were forced to eat horrible tasting biscuits and take a little black pill, or had a teaspoon of cod liver oil. Students were told by the teachers “you will never amount to anything “and called dumb, stupid or ugly, according to those at the gatherings.

Students felt they were used as guinea pigs for a wide range of medical experiments and practices for dentists, doctors and nurses. Thomas George, 58, has a fear of going to dentists because as a child he was taken to the dentist in Tofino, who did not fully freeze his gums. Although his teeth were good, the dentist drilled into them for mercury fillings, said George. Many of the students were not given anesthetic (freezing) and had to endure agonizing pain as the dentist worked on their teeth.

Students received vaccinations with no parental consent and were not told what the shots were for. Many have scars on their arms and back. It was common for children to have their tonsils removed and some had ear surgery, although the former students said they had no ear problems.

Many students were subjected to child labour and spent days babysitting the teachers’ children, cleaning the teachers’ living quarters, baking and cooking for them, rolling up 40-gallon oil barrels from the Tofino wharf to the school, raking coal into the furnace, cleaning the classrooms and maintaining the school grounds. On evenings and weekends children had to continue babysitting and cleaning for the teachers. Because of the child labour duties they feel they did not receive the education they were entitled to.

Both girls and boys endured sexual abuse by some of the teachers and other students. Since the old Opitsaht Day School has been rebuilt to accommodate the administrative office and a place to gather for community events, students have flashbacks of the abuse and fear going to the Meares Island Cultural Center.

During class students prepared for church rituals by attending confirmation, confession and some boys learned how to speak Latin for their roles as altar boys.

Some of the teachers came from Christie Indian Residential School to teach in Opitsaht. Arnold Frank remembers having to run to Kakawis to pick up the nuns, brothers or deliver papers. Sometimes he had to go in the evening, using a flashlight to walk back home by himself.

Due to the abuse and neglect, some students dropped out of school, many have fears of dentists and to cope with the trauma some people turned to substance use and gambling. Many have triggers, such as certain loud noises, smells, sounds and tastes.

Filling out the form and hearing about the Agreement in Principle has brought up unresolved trauma for some of the former students, who often have no one to talk to. The former students were grateful for the opportunity to share, and to be heard.