Surviving residential school
Sam George tells what he endured and how it led him to drugs & crime before he returned to the healing power of his culture.
July 12th, 2023
“We were children witnessing trauma twenty or thirty times a day. We saw kids as young as three or four getting beat up.”—Sam George on a typical day at St. Paul’s.
Review by Graham Chandler
One late summer day when he was about seven, Sam George was at home playing with his brother Andy on the living room floor when they heard a knock on the door.
“It was a strange thing because nobody on the reserve ever knocked,” he recalls. “Little did I know that it was only the beginning of the trauma that would suffocate my innocence and change my life forever.”
That “beginning” George writes of was an abrupt and shocking change from a carefree and happy childhood in a closely-knit Indigenous family to a hellish eight years in St. Paul’s Indian Residential School leading to three decades of drinking, drugs, crime, four and a half years in prison and four failed marriages. He tells all in his memoir The Fire Still Burns: Life In and After Residential School (Purich Books $19.95) co-written with Jill Yonit Goldberg, Liam Belson, Dylan MacPhee and Tanis Wilson.
Now a Squamish elder Sam George fills the first two chapters of this engrossing book describing his idyllic early years: collecting and learning wild medicines with his grandmother; fishing for clam and crab, cooking them in sand pits and eating them off cedar bark plates; smoking salmon; hunting deer; and days of drumming in the Longhouse.
Then, a shattering. George pulls no punches in telling it like it was at that school. St Paul’s was in the 500 block of West Keith Road of North Vancouver on what is now the parking lot for St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School. Run by the Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1899 to 1958, St. Paul’s was demolished in 1959.
George writes candidly and poignantly. Upon arrival his hair was shorn, he was stripped and doused in pesticide, given school garb and assigned a number. “I was number 3,” he says. “A lot of the time, the nuns wouldn’t even use your name.”
Then there was the strap that all the nuns carried—and used—routinely.
And the molesting. George writes of the regular sexual assaults over a two-year period that he endured at the hands of one of the nuns. “One thing that struck me about the whole ordeal was that everything she was doing to me she and all the other nuns said you would go to Hell for. I felt ugly, dirty, and used.” For a long time he told no one. “Instead of being hurt, I would choose to be mad. I held it all in. I became violent. I started fighting a lot.”
“Hate is all I ever felt for the nuns,” he writes. “I felt hate for the nuns because they felt hate for us. We were children witnessing trauma twenty or thirty times a day. We saw kids as young as three or four getting beat up. They would get beat up for speaking their language. Not to mention that we were constantly called ugly, stupid, savages, and dumb Indians—things like that.”
He was nine the first time he ran away. Home was just two blocks away. “Before I knew it, the RCMP were knocking on my door.” Handcuffed, he was driven back to the school in the squad car.
Around thirteen George started drinking on the weekends that they were allowed to go home, and in the summers. “We’d drink to get drunk, to feel good,” he says. From there it was a downhill slide: more drinking, drugs, a conviction for the attempted manslaughter of his brother, the Oakalla prison years, and more—all vividly described, with some interesting bits like the time he smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix.
But, what did he learn at the school? To that, he writes, “I learned how to steal, I learned how to lie, I learned how to mistrust, and I learned how to hate. I hated the nuns, I hated the priests, I hated the policemen, I hated the judges, I hated government officials, and I hated the teachers. And for all of it I owe thanks to my time at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School.”
He wraps with one positive from it all: “I learned how to survive.” George is now an educator with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
The book includes a useful and practical reader’s guide to assist students and instructors in considering the various aspects of George’s story.
It’s a harrowing tale that adds to the growing record of the horrific legacy of residential schools in Canada. George’s personal story culminates with the lessons he learned for rebuilding his life after the mountain of trauma he suffered: by embracing his traditional culture—the very ways the nuns had tried to beat out of him.
Graham Chandler is a Vancouver-based freelance writer with over 700 published works, many with anthropological and heritage themes. He holds a PhD in archaeology from the University of London, UK.