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Late First Nations Elder, Elsie Robinson, is honoured for helping others on their healing journey. Courtesy of Ha-Shilth-Sa/Jack F. Little

‘We have to turn the page on the past'

As a girl, Elsie Robinson attended a United Church-run residential school in Ahousaht on Vancouver Island. Her grandson is Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a strong advocate of better education for First Nations children. Last October, one day before she died unexpectedly near Nanaimo, B.C., she spoke with Richard Wright.

By Richard Wright

Q As a former residential school student, what does it mean to you that your own grandson is now AFN chief?

A I’m very proud of him. I knew he was going to do something. I’ve been telling him to talk about turning the page, because I had a vision about residential [school], that we have to turn the page.

Q Tell me about the vision.

A I just saw a real big book, looking real black with black writing. I was told to turn the page, and I couldn’t even lift one page. That page was our black past with residential [school]. But the page is lifting a bit. I can see it and I’m happy about it.

Q What was your life like before residential school?

A  I’m from Ahousaht on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s a village of about 1,000 people now. Then, we were just a few hundred. I had two brothers and two sisters. I was second last. I just have one sister left now, but they all lived to be in their 80s.

Q What did your father and mother do?

My parents fished. Fishing was the only way our people made some kind of a living. Three families lived together in a one-room shack and got along. It was very simple. I have happy memories of that, and I think that helped me go through the fire.

Q The fire?

A The bad times of my life. Ahousaht is a reserve, and there was a residential school there. They took as many children as they could, probably 100 kids altogether. It wasn’t our choice. We had to go there. They thought we were heathens, and they were going to change us. I lived there from age seven to 17.

Q What are your earliest memories of the school?

A  I remember how I was treated. I didn’t speak English. That was very, very hard. There were a lot of rules. My brothers and sisters were at the school, but you didn’t see one another. You weren’t allowed. So we didn’t grow up as a family. You didn’t know your own brother.

Q Your parents were living just a mile away in the village. Did you ever see them?

A  We were allowed to go home on Saturday, just for the day. You didn’t do much, but you were glad to be home. It was only for a few hours, and then you had to go back again. Of course, I didn’t mind that so much when I became a teenager! [Laughs]

Q That school, it’s not there anymore.

A No. Somebody burned it. One of the students set it on fire.

Q Can you describe it for me?

A  It was a big building, made of wood. The classroom was plain, no decoration. All the grades were in the same room. We started at the front and moved back as we grew older. We wrote on slates to begin with. They gave us paper as we moved on to the higher grades. All the girls slept together in one room. They called it a dormitory. We all ate together in one dining hall.

Q What were you given to eat at school?

A  We always had peanut butter for our bread. I’d never had peanut butter until I went to school. We had that every day and porridge for breakfast. Every day. At dinner, when there was some kind of meat, we really enjoyed it. Usually, though, it was fish. It was the same, the same, the same. We were usually hungry.

Q Did you do work at the school?

A  Oh yes, they made us work. We did all the laundry, the cleaning, the sewing. We made our own clothes and shirts for the boys. Some supervisors made us use a toothbrush to wash the floors. We were forced to do it.

Q Was this a punishment?

A  I don’t know. Just to be cruel I guess. I call them my tormentors. We had to always do whatever they said, and they were always holding a big stick, ready to hit you if you didn’t obey.

Q Were you ever hit?

A  Oh yes. I didn’t know what they were saying to me at first. I didn’t understand English.

Q So you wouldn’t do what they told you because you didn’t understand what they wanted?

A  Exactly. That stick actually only just disappeared for me. I still used to see it — that stick ready to hit me. It stayed with me. I had a real strong phobia about being controlled, about being told what to do, what not to do. Afraid you were doing wrong. That you were going to be hit. But I don’t see it anymore. I finally went to treatment. I didn’t think I needed treatment because I was fortunate to have parents who didn’t have addictions. I didn’t know an alcoholic life. But I needed treatment. I didn’t realize I was carrying so much baggage from the residential school. I was already in my 70s when I went. It was the best thing I ever did for myself.

Q Was there sexual abuse at the school?

A Not that I know of.

Q Did they harm you in any other way?

A Yes. Verbally. They told us we weren’t doing a good job, things like that. I didn’t know how brainwashed we were until later. I remember my first principal coming to visit me after I left the school. I had a family now on the reserve, and he heard me speak my language to my little girl, and he said, “Oh you’re not teaching them that are you?” I wanted to obey him again. I couldn’t get over how strong the impulse was. I couldn’t get over that.

Q Was there anything about residential school that you liked?

A  Residential was all right when I became older, when I could speak the language and I wanted to learn. I liked to learn. I had always had good grades. I always had close 100 percent, but I had to study. The only thing I didn’t like was composition.

Q What was your favourite subject?

A  I liked learning about other countries. They called it geography. I wanted to know how other people lived.

Q Did you have a favourite teacher?

A Yes. Miss Brody really wanted to help us, to teach us. She was an elderly lady. I admired her. She could tell when we were doing something we shouldn’t be doing [Laughs].

Q Did you play sports?

A  I remember playing tennis and skipping, basketball and football. They call it soccer now. And we had to go for walks on the beaches. Our island is a beautiful island. We have a lot of sand beaches. We spent quite a lot of time on the beaches when there was nice weather. There was a sand beach just where our school was and we could go down to the beach for a swim.

Q Did you learn an instrument?

A  I learned quite a few. I loved piano the best, but my fingers were too small [Laughs]. The music was stopped because not enough were interested.

Q When you left residential school at age 17, did you continue your education?

A  No. I wanted to learn but residential was the only school I could go to. We weren’t allowed to go to white men’s schools. I couldn’t go to high school. Kids are very fortunate today. They can go as far as they want. I wanted to work in the nursing profession, but I couldn’t go out and be trained. But I think I’m doing a little bit of it. I work at a treatment centre as an elder. I like it. It’s only now and then. It’s not steady. When they call me I just go.

Q The same centre where you went for your own treatment? What do you do?

A  I’m a good listener for the clients. I just like helping my people.

Q What did you do after residential school?

A  I became a single parent, and there was no job for me in Ahousaht. That’s why I’m in town. I live in Ladysmith, now. It’s a small, quiet place by the ocean a little south of Nanaimo. I used to live in Nanaimo. I lived there for half a century. That’s where I went when I left the reserve. I never had any training and I took the first job I could get. I worked as a cook in a restaurant. I worked as a head cook in a restaurant for 14 years. It was easy for me. I liked it, and it payed the bills.

Q What was your specialty?

A Steaks. I was a good steak cook. I could do from blue-rare to well done.

Q It’s not easy to cook a steak properly!

A  No there aren’t many good steak cooks [Laughs].

Q Did you learn to cook steaks at residential school?

A  Steaks? Never! [Laughs] One principal got us a side of beef now and then, and we had to butcher it properly. That’s where I learned about different cuts of meat. Roasts and stuff. And when I thought of it later, while I was working, I was grateful for that. But no, back then, when the butchering was done, it wasn’t us who got the steaks.

Q So there were some things you took from the experience that were useful in later life?

A Yes. Useful. Yes. There were teachers from the Women’s Missionary Society, and they taught us an evening class called “Charm.” It taught you how to dress and how to act. We had table etiquette and sex education. We learned how to bathe a newborn baby. This was all taught to us if we were willing to learn it.

Q How do you fill your time these days?

A  Mostly reading. And I like to weave baskets. That’s my pastime. Kept my car on the road; it’s an Olds ’88. Bluish grey. I still have my licence. I’ve been pretty healthy. I’ve always worked hard. I still dream of going to school, but maybe in the next life [Laughs].

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