A survivor's story

Imagine losing you mother as a child, being ripped out of your father’s arms and spending years in a place you don’t belong, where you are beaten, poorly fed and disrespected.

That was the reality for Okanagan Indian Band elder Eric Mitchell, who spent nearly six years of his childhood at a residential school near Kamloops.

“It is like every other story you’ve heard,” says Mitchell. “I could show you all the scars I got from getting whacked with a ruler from the teachers. Just the fact we weren’t at home was trauma enough.”

“I remember I didn’t like how they roughly treated us,” recounts Mitchell. “They cut all our hair short and they threw away all our clothes and gave us different clothes with numbers on it.”

Although, he says, his experiences were not as bad as some, the impact has been lifelong.

Mitchell’s entire life changed in 1958. His family, mom, dad and six children, was doing well. They never were hungry or needing – his father made a good income as a logger.

“I remember prior going to that school that, heck, we lived a good life,” says Mitchell. “I never was hungry, I never was cold. Dad made good money, and we were never wanting for anything.”

But then his mother got cancer and his family lost its matriarch.

His father did all he could to take care of the children, but the government quickly got involved. A social worker in Vernon told his father that if he didn’t let his kids go off to residential school, he would be arrested.

And so, through threat of imprisonment, Mitchell and his siblings headed to Kamloops.

“Not once do I remember my father even raising his voice at me,” says Mitchell. “So, to go from that to there, where the first thing we got was a smack in the back of the head, and from the good food that we had to the garbage they gave us, (it) was traumatizing.”

For six years, Mitchell says he was poorly treated and disrespected. He spent hours being beaten and strapped for questioning the brainwashing he says the native students experienced.

By the time he was 13, Mitchell was finally returned home. But that's not the positive he remembers.
He recalls one 24-hour period vividly.

Mitchell’s father had come to Kamloops to spend the day with his kids, a perfect family outing.

“My dad took us out. All his kids and all his nephews there,” remembers Mitchell.

“We went to Kamloops, he took us to the park, we went to the Chinese restaurant and had a big meal. We went to the museum – so we had a really good day. We went to sleep smiling.”

The next morning, Mitchell awoke to a knock at the door.

“I was told my dad got killed by a hit and run,” says Mitchell. “That was the reason we left.”

At the time, Mitchell and his siblings were orphans and, ironically, were told they were no longer welcome at the school now they were parentless.

“We were told we could stay until the end of the school year, but after that were not allowed to come back. ‘Now you’re orphans we don’t want you back there,’” he was told.

Despite the fact he desperately wanted out, being tossed aside now he was orphan felt even more painful.

“Sure, on one hand I was glad not to go back, but being told like that felt like I was being thrown away,” says Mitchell. “It confused the heck out of me. I didn’t know what to feel.”

Despite what he calls a phenomenal support system of aunts, uncles and community members who stepped in, Mitchell started to feel the emotional effects of his experience. He says he became extremely angry at 17.

“I would fight at the drop of a hat. I was mad at everybody, the world, myself and wasn’t really sure where that was coming from,” explains Mitchell.

This lasted for years, and he believes the only thing that allowed him to spiral out of the anger and hurt, and begin healing, was the memory of how much his mother loved him.

“I started to really think about it, and I thought, well, I didn’t get that from my mom, I didn’t learn that from grandparents, I didn’t learn that from my dad. So where did I learn that from? I learned it from those priests who treated us like that. For six years, they said things and did things to us – they were brainwashing people.”

For Mitchell, that moment of realization clicked when his daughter was born.

“I really looked at myself and who I was, and I didn’t like what I saw,” says Mitchell. “This angry person who was quick to do that, eh?" (Mitchell raises his hand in a disciplinary action). "That was when I started remembering. Those people that I had hated – I was like them. That‘s when I got rid of that.”

The effects of his story and thousands like it have been far reaching. First Nation communities from coast to coast still show the signs of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada now calls a cultural genocide.

“The real obvious sign that they tell us today is that there are as many of our children in foster care, and in care of someone else, as there ever was in residential school. What that means is that somewhere along the way this parenting thing is not out there,” explains Mitchell.

Mitchell says generations of aboriginals didn't learn proper parenting skills because it was taken away from them in residential school.

“When my daughter was born, I tell people her and I grew up together, because the more she needed as a young child to be safe and looked after, the more I had to change to accommodate that,” says Mitchell. “Unfortunately, she got the worse parent than our son did 10 years later.”

He says although he has found peace and is able to share his story now, for many it was still too painful.

“To talk about it, you have to remember it and relive it,” explains Mitchell.

He hopes by telling his story he can help others understand this dark mark on Canadian history.

“The memory of my mother saves me,” says Mitchell. “Until others can find that one thing in their being that they can latch on to – ‘I know my mom loved me so I may be worth something’ – until they find that thing, I can’t give that to them and neither can you. Even if they have to say ‘I love myself.’”

It's estimated at least 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to live in residential schools, where they were taken away from their families and forced to speak English and practise Christianity.

Mitchell now works to share the history of the Okanagan First Nation people. For nearly 30 years, he has worked as a cultural consultant teaching groups of school children about his people.

Groups are able to join him at Komasket Park on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve to learn about cultural practices and check out a traditional winter hut, built by Mitchell himself.

A commemorative plaque will be placed at Komasket to tell the story of his tribe’s experience with the residential school system.

Mitchell and his wife also work with nursing students at UBC Okanagan to share his story and use his life path to show how it affects the patients of aboriginal descent they will inevitable treat in their careers.

“It is a hidden history,” adds Mitchell

“The federal government did a very good job of hiding the fact all this was going on right next to those people without their knowledge. I believe if the Canadian public knew the truth of what was going on, there would have been enough good people to say ‘Enough is enough.'"

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