This is an essay written in 2012, following the author’s return visit to the Blood Reserve/Kainai First Nation
Some Questions Have Simple Answers
At a 50-year remove, how does a son resolve doubts about his father’s life’s work?
Dark rain clouds were threatening as I boarded an Air Canada plane that would take me from Nova Scotia to the foothills country of southern Alberta. I hoped they weren’t an omen. The flight would take me across seven provinces, but this was more than a journey of many miles, for I was on an expedition of discovery, a trip that in a sense would take me back to my childhood.
Between the ages of six and sixteen, I’d lived with my family at an Indian Residential School where my father, an Anglican priest from Nova Scotia, was the Principal. For six of those years, I’d sat in classrooms surrounded by children of the Kainai (Blood) tribe, so it is little wonder that when discussion of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools invariably included outright condemnation, I tended to bridle. I remembered my late father as a principled and kindly man who’d treated the Blackfoot kids with affection and respect, encouraged them to cherish their native heritage, and happily watched them rejoin their families on weekends and holidays. How did all the stories of physical and sexual abuse jibe with my memories of his administration? If abuse was taking place, had my father known about it? And had he done enough to prevent it?
St. Paul’s Anglican Indian Residential School on the Blood Reserve (Kainai First Nation) in Alberta
And with Canada’s residential schools increasingly reviled as instruments of cultural genocide, I’d begun to wonder how different I was from French citizens who attempt to justify their parents’ internment and transportation of French Jews. Given my father’s role in a system that reportedly destroyed Indigenous lives, families, heritage and pride, had my most basic beliefs about his character and his mission work been totally wrong?
So now I was returning to the Blood Reserve, in an effort to hear for myself how former Kainai classmates remembered their school experience – and my father. Upon arriving in Calgary, I immediately got a rental car and headed south, returning to the place of my childhood, the place that had done much, or so I believed, to shape me into the person I was.
Passing through the city of Lethbridge, I soon reached the Blood Reserve — the largest in area in all of Canada — and drove directly to the small community of Standoff, the Reserve’s administrative centre, where I was impressed by the modern-looking Health Centre, the Blood Tribe Clinic, the Kainaiwa Children’s Services, and the massive Public Works terminal. Many members of the Band Council and management staff had surnames I remembered from my schooldays. But on that day, every Councillor was out of the office.
Frustrated, I drove my rental car to Cardston, the “white” town on the Reserve’s south boundary, a town once known as the Mormon Capital of Canada. As I entered the town, I drove by St. Paul’s Anglican Church, a building I knew well, as the church had once stood on the grounds of St. Paul’s before being moved to the outskirts of Cardston in 1958. Nearby the church stood the Blood Reserve Hospital, built in 1928, where one of my younger brothers was born.
I made my way to the town’s secondary school where I, along with dozens of St. Paul’s students, had attended classes from Grades 7 to 12. Wandering the halls of the high school, I observed small groups of Blackfoot kids sitting by themselves in the cafeteria. When I introduced myself to a non-Indigenous teacher, she spoke positively about Kainai students taking an active part in school life, and a display case of the school’s athletic achievements contained a number of familiar Kainai names.
But in the town’s heritage museum, the section devoted to Cardston’s First Nations neighbours was relatively small. The town’s library held only a handful of books about the local Blackfoot, and oddly, these books were kept behind the checkout desk. On Main Street, small groups of Blackfoot men and women went about their business, often piling back into aging pickup trucks. Many stores displayed signs that forbade loitering, and I knew why when a couple of elderly Bloods asked me if I had any change.
I kept trying to talk to people. On the following day, I attended a National Aboriginal Day celebration on the flats of the Belly River and chatted with several middle-aged men smoking outside a tent.
As always when I explained who I was, my questions were met with quiet courtesy. One of them had actually attended St. Paul’s but after our time there, and two others said family members had attended the Reserve’s Roman Catholic IRS St. Mary’s. But questions about their experiences were met with guarded replies, the negative remarks couched in general terms. “Bad things happened in residential schools” was the most common.
The day before my scheduled return to Halifax, I was pinning my hopes on an “open house” in Moses Lake, the sprawling Kainai community on the outskirts of Cardston. Organized to inform Band members of various educational and social services available to them, the event was noisy and well-attended, but the organizers didn’t offer to connect me with former classmates.
But seated in my rental car outside the Ninastako Centre, I had a long talk with a Band official who helped me understand that a disinclination to praise the residential schools in any way might be due to outstanding abuse claims. But I was happy to learn from him that of three accusations of sexual abuse dating from my father’s 10-year principalship at St. Paul’s, one was merely a suspicion that one staff member was a lesbian, and another — an unwanted advance at a summer camp by a member of staff — had been reported to my father, and that staff member had been immediately fired.
The fact that the student had trusted my father enough to report the incident was certainly further encouragement.
But I was still unsatisfied when I reentered the Centre and ventured to speak with a seated elderly Kainai woman who had chanted the event’s opening prayer. I’d recognized her name. She was the sister of an equally respected woman who had worked at the school during my years there, and many members of her family had been students. “Surely she can tell me things,” I thought as I crouched at her feet and introduced myself. And then, in the most startling way, she did. When she realized who I was, and whose son I was, the smile that transformed her face held such genuine warmth and delight that I knew my journey had not been in vain. Other questions remained, but that smile and the tiny hand that reached out to clasp mine had answered an important one, and I knew that whatever else I learned about the school and its legacy, I could trust the memory I had of the good and gentle man who had loved the Kainai and served them so faithfully.