The first day at these schools was sometimes especially painful, in some cases almost tragically so. Author Gilbert Oskaboose was a student at the Garnier Residential School in the town of Spanish, Ontario, and was later a reporter for the Serpent River First Nation. The narrative below, titled “The Welcome,” is based on Oskaboose’s personal story, the story of a child caught between the traditional ways of his people and the non-indigenous culture. The account begins with an encounter between Little Wolf and a Catholic priest. (Priests were called Blackrobes because they wore black cloaks.)
Little Wolf saw it coming but couldn’t believe it was actually happening. The Blackrobe’s huge, hairy hand flew up, appeared to hang in midair as it drifted through a lazy semi-circle, and exploded violently in the boy’s face. The blow slammed him into the hard stone ends of an iron gate. Dazed and shaken, he lay in the dust, dimly aware of split lips and warm salty blood making angry red patterns on a brand new buckskin shirt.
‘Indian lankquitch iss verbotten! You will not spik hitt again.’
Far off in the swirling mists of pain and confusion, a door slams, a lock turns. Empty walls bear mute witness to the sounds of muffled sobs torn from a small frightened boy huddled in a darkened corner.
In the fall of 1945, accompanied by his father and armed with a burning hunger for knowledge, the firstborn of an Ojibway chief strides boldly up to the massive gates of the Garnier Residential School for Indians located in the tiny town of Spanish in Northern Ontario.
Behind these great walls, the elders say, are endless rows of books, the Whiteman’s talking leaves, birdtracks on something called paper, the essence of his power and magic. Behind these great walls are the Jesuits, the ‘Blackrobe’ priests and Faithkeepers of an angry white god who throws lightning and sends pox and keeps ‘hellfire’ for anyone who dares to defy him—or His helpers.
The Hudson Bay man had told them the letter that came from The Great White Fathers in Ottawa was an invitation for Little Wolf to study medicine with the Blackrobes. Truly, it was not a matter to be taken lightly, and they travelled many miles in a swift bark canoe and on foot to keep this meeting with destiny.
Father and son held each other for a long time, the boy burying his face into the warm folds of his father’s heavy woolen shirt, picking up the subtle scents of tobacco, of campfires and of the wild lonely places they had travelled through to get to this place.
His father broke the embrace first, turned away and busied himself rummaging through his pockets for the letter Little Wolf was to present to the headman.
‘You be a good boy now,’ the gentle Ojibway syllables caressed his ears for the last time. ‘The Whites are like geese that darken the sky before the winds of winter, their numbers are many; our people are like dead leaves, few and scattered. The Circle is broken; the Sacred Hope is shattered. Maybe the Blackrobes will take pity on us and teach you a cure.’
Little Wolf stayed and watched his father turn and walk away. He stayed, filled with anticipation and perhaps a little fear, to ring the great bell for admission into this strange and wondrous place.
The echoes had scarcely died away when a tall gray-haired man, garbed in the long flowing black robes of the Jesuit order, glided down a sprawling staircase and strode towards the boy.
Surely one of such noble bearing must be the headman or maybe even a chief of the Blackrobes. It was a good sign. Fitting and proper that a chief be there to greet the son of another chief. Not wishing to show his small fears, nor to appear overly eager to greet a Holy Man, Little Wolf took one step forward—and in his most solemn ceremonial voice—extended the traditional Ojibway greeting for strangers. The Blackrobe’s huge hairy hand flew up . . .1
- 1 : Gilbert Oskaboose, “The Welcome,” Toronto Star, July 18, 1988.