May Sam knew very little about what lay ahead as she stepped onto the school bus before her first day of Indian day school.
She was just six years old.
She didn’t speak English.
Sam was born in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island and never spoke English at home. So she spent the first few years lip-syncing God Save the Queen on the school steps every morning. She also didn’t know what nuns were.
“I didn’t know if it was a man or woman because of the, well, how the nuns dressed. It was really strange for me to see that.”
But there was one fact Sam knew.
“My father, he says ‘you get up and you be ready for the bus and you get to school. If you don’t go to school, they’ll come and take you away.’ And back in those days – he called it the Indian agent – ‘the Indian agent will come and get you and take you away.’ He didn’t want that to happen to me and my sister. And so while my dad was at work, we had to do our chores and be ready for the school bus.”
When Sam got onto the school bus, leaving her home by the water of the Saanich Inlet, and headed to St. Catherine’s Indian Day School in Duncan for the first time, she didn’t know what was in store.
What she found was an alien, hostile and cold world.
“The nuns hated me,” Sam recalled. “There was no care, no love or no affection or nothing. They didn’t care. They did that to everybody.”
Sam’s struggles to learn English left her feeling isolated, even with her sister also at the school, because she couldn’t talk in her language for fear of being punished. The nun who taught Sam kept a bar of soap on her desk and would use it to scrub the tongue of any child who spoke another language. It happened to Sam multiple times. Other times she was whipped with a long canvas strap.
The worst instance of physical abuse left Sam with a scar on her leg that’s still visible today.
Part of Sam’s ‘education’ involved being forced to make hot chocolate for the hundreds of other students in a dank basement.
The work involved building a fire and pouring big cans of cocoa powder, powdered milk and molasses into a massive galvanized pot. She would stir and stir the pot for hours and then pour the mix into hundreds of cups for the other students.
She was in Grade 3.
Forced labour was commonplace in residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said some schools that operated using the ‘half-day system’ – where students worked for half the day and learned for the other half – came close to turning schools into child labour camps.
One day, Sam was preparing the hot chocolate alone when a nun snuck up on her. One of the nun’s favourite punishments was to twirl her finger through Sam’s hair and jerk her head backwards. Distracted by breaking up kindling for the fire, Sam didn’t hear the nun come up behind her. The nun jerked her head backwards and Sam lost her balance, stumbling onto a broken bottle, the sharp edge of the glass cutting into her ankle.
“It was so painful. I fell down. I looked and my ankle was honestly, it was pure white on one side, and I didn’t know it was my flesh – it was dark maroon like my flesh. But I really believe it went right through halfway in my ankle. That’s the scar I have on my leg.”
The nun dragged her to the nurse’s office, who dabbed the wound with some iodine, wrapped it in gauze and sent Sam on her way.
“It was so thick with blood. But I was hopping when I got off the bus and my sister helped me to get in the house. My father got home and he was so mad. He didn’t understand why they didn’t bring me to the hospital to get stitches because I needed stitches.”
Even while wading through painful memories, Sam brightens when she talks of her father. He raised Sam and her sister on his own after their mother walked out on them. The day Sam came back with her ankle bleeding, he cut down branches from a cherry tree and made crutches. When Sam was an infant he made a pacifier out of a horse clam.
“He was a great man. He was a wonderful man … it was just how creative he was and how he protected me and my sister.”
It’s clear that strength and protectiveness are some things he passed on to Sam.
She never told her children or her husband what she experienced, and her father never talked much about his own struggles. Sam heard stories from other family members and neighbours.
She saw children go off to residential school and never saw them return and saw what that did to the family members who were left behind. But her own stories were something she kept inside. She’s unsure if this is her inherited protective nature of sheltering others, or because of the humiliation the nuns inflicted on her.
“The nuns made us so timid and ashamed. All my young life, I kept my hair over my eyes and I would never look up … They made us really, really timid – so ashamed of who we were. They told us not to talk about their abuse when we go home. ‘Don’t tell anybody. Don’t talk about it.’ It was hard. In all my lifetime, I never told my children. I never talked to my husband about it.”
Sam now lives in Tsartlip First Nation with her children all living nearby, one just down the road and the two others living in Tsawout First Nation, both on the Saanich Peninsula.
“I never told my children, I wish I did. Maybe they would have opened up and told me what happened with them in school, at the tribal school here. Maybe they would have told me – maybe it would have saved them – but I didn’t talk about it.”
Getting to the point of telling her story has been a struggle for Sam. A dichotomy exists within her. The urge to protect others and help battles against the shame that still scars Sam decades after the abuse she suffered in that Duncan day school.
“Those that have passed away with the hurt and pain of losing their child and never coming home – you need to hear that. Those that are still here are still drowning themselves with alcohol and have so much anger with their family at home, the hurt and pain is the anger from what they went through in school and now they just can’t let it go. They can’t stop being so angry because they have that shame and that hurt, those that were sexually abused – they have a real, deep anger.”
Protecting future generations is particularly important to Sam. Intergenerational trauma has hurt families – her own included – and spread the hurt to younger generations. Sam said she’ll always stand up for younger people to try and stem the spread of trauma and pain.
Part of that work is done by helping others navigate that shame and hurt. Sam works as an Elder in residence at the University of Victoria and Camosun College. Her late husband, Gabriel “Skip” Sam also worked at UVic.
“I talk to people and say that I love you. Complete strangers, I meet them and I talk to them and I say ‘I love you from my heart to your heart.’ This is what I truly mean.”
Sam’s warmth and loving nature are readily apparent, she’s quick to laugh or rest her head on the shoulder of Kristin Spray or Katie Manomie, who flanked her during the interview. The pair have sat rapt throughout Sam’s telling of her story.
With more people telling their stories and with the federal recognition that has finally come for Sept. 30 – “it’s about time they did that,” Sam added – some progress is starting to be made.
“It’s out in the open now. It’s out. It’s helping us to heal to have it out in the open.”