Warning: This story contains disturbing details of child abuse.
Alex and Genevieve Johnny are taking heart in the fact that people are finally starting to believe the horrific stories of their school-time experiences.
The couple, both members of Cowichan Tribes, said what happened to them during their time in Indian Residential and Day school, and the impact these traumatic experiences had on their lives, has stayed with them well into their senior years.
Alex said it broke his heart when hundreds of bodies of Indigenous children were recently discovered at former residential schools across the country.
“Now the world is finally seeing what happened at these schools,” said Alex, 84, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I have always found talking about what happened to me and those around me in school very hard, and it still chews me up. Sometimes I remember it all clearly and I go to sleep at night crying. I feel guilty that I survived.”
Alex was visiting friends on Kuper Island (now Penelakut Island) when he was just seven years old and the authorities picked him up and forced him to be boarded at Kuper Island Indian Residential School.
His father had died when he was six months old, and his mother couldn’t read or write, so he had no one to advocate on his behalf.
Alex said that was the beginning of three years of misery.
“We were called dumb Indians and were regularly abused sexually, physically and emotionally.”
“We were also undernourished and starved, and I used to steal potatoes and cucumbers from the kitchen just to survive. I’ve always tried not to think about what happened to me during this time, but sometimes it all comes back. It was a very abusive situation for all of us…”
Alex said after three years of the ongoing abuse, he stole a boat and rowed to Chemainus where he then stole a bike and headed to his mother’s home on Cowichan Tribes reserve land, but was home just one day before the RCMP showed up and brought him before a judge.
“The judge said I was lucky to have survived my escape, and that he was going to send me back to the residential school,” Alex said.
“I told the judge that he should stay at the school and see if he likes it, and also said I would run away again the first chance I got. He decided that I would stay with my mom’s relatives, and then I moved from one family to another.”
Alex said when he was 10, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to Nanaimo Indian Hospital, one of 29 run by the federal government across Canada for Indigenous patients from 1946 to 1967, where he was forced to endure more abuse and humiliation.
“At 7 a.m. every morning, an orderly would come in and grab my penis,” he said.
“I tried to tell the nurses, but they wouldn’t listen. They operated on me and punctured my lung during the procedure and for the next four months, I couldn’t sit up or feed myself. I still have trouble breathing. They used Natives as guinea pigs there, and many didn’t make it through their operations and I didn’t see them again.
“I believe in my heart that they will find bodies there as well if they look.”
Alex said he spent another three years at the hospital before he was finally released, still weak.
He eventually secured work in local saw mills and spent his working career in the industry until his retirement.
But his treatment at the school and hospital still haunts him.
“When I heard they found the bodies at Kamloops, it was very painful for me. I still carry a lot of pain.”
Genevieve, who currently teaches the Hul’q’umi’num’ language, attended St. Catherine’s Indian Day School near Duncan when she was a student and, while not a residential school, she said her experiences were just as horrific as those of Alex.
“I was felt up on a regular basis by my teacher when I was six years old,” she said.
“I knew when I was instructed to stay behind after class while the other students left that something wrong was going to happen, and then the teacher would have me sit on his lap and feel me all over. We were also told that we were savages and would never succeed in life.
“We were given sour milk to drink and biscuits that I’m sure were made for dogs to eat. We weren’t even given anesthetic when the dentist would visit the school and pull our teeth. I told my grandmother about all this, but she didn’t believe me.”
Genevieve then attended the Valley’s Queen of Angels School, a facility for students of all backgrounds, and while she felt mostly at ease around the nuns who ran the school, there was a lot of racism among the non-Indigenous students.
“The other kids really picked on the Native students, calling us names like dirty savages.
“We were all told by the other students that we’d better not tell anyone or we’d get a lot worse the next time. They were very mean to us and my head still has lumps from being hit.”
Both Alex and Genevieve recently received $100,000 each in compensation for their treatment during those formative years, but feel the money does little to right the wrongs.
“We’re not looking for sympathy, but what we want is understanding of our people and the reason why so many of us are experiencing problems with drugs, alcohol and homelessness.
“I hope things get better for my grandchildren and our people, and I’ve never given up praying for that. We all have to work together and realize that we all bleed the same blood.”