First Nations group says all residential schools need to be investigated

An exterior view of the residential school at Fort Alexander is shown in this handout image provided by the archives of the Société historique de Saint-Boniface. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Archives of the Société historique de Saint-Boniface *MANDATORY CREDIT*

The public schools of the 1950s and ‘60s were not the best places for young children or even teenagers. Physical punishment was still allowed, i.e. strapping,  and was used liberally and without parent consent.

I began public school in the small rural community of Waldo and was bused from the smaller community of Baynes Lake. The bus ride was delightful, but school often was not.

Boredom in multi-graded classrooms often set in quickly and a usually young teacher struggled to maintain control. No classroom talking was a staunch rule.

I was strapped three times in elementary school: 

First, for sitting on a board swing and pumping too high with my partner. It is very hard not to cry when you are in Grade 2. 

Second, for throwing snowballs on schoolgrounds. I discovered that the strap stung even more when your hands were really cold. By then, it was a badge of honor not to cry.

Third, for riding another student’s new bike around the school without his permission and crashing it into another bike going the opposite way.

No crying.

The principal of this school, usually a man, often taught Grades 11 and 12 and had all the major discipline to sort out. One principal resorted to boxing gloves and let the students, always boys, fight it out on the playground. 

All of this, again, without parent consent. It could get very rough and nose bleeds were common despite the big boxing gloves. 

I do not recall girls ever boxing or, for that matter, ever getting strapped.

Strapping was very common for the pettiest things and I remember students getting whacked for writing left handed. You could also get strapped for ringing the big school bell by pulling the long rope.

About Grade 5 all the senior grades moved to Jaffray to a new high school. Waldo school now had only two teachers, one for Grades 1-3 (no kindergarten) and one for Grades 4-6. 

Mrs. Schroeder was my Grade 5 teacher who took no guff from anyone.

Talking without being asked often brought detentions and math drill. The classroom was often deathly quiet.

My friend Dennis loved to talk out loud. He had been failed at least once and had no respect for teachers whatsoever. He seemed to get strapped in the hallway almost monthly.

We would cower at our desks as Mrs. Schroeder would yell at him to hold out his hand, followed by a couple of sharp strap smacks and a lot of cursing and swearing from Dennis. Sometimes his mother would come to pick him up with more cursing and swearing at Mrs. Schroeder. Wonder where Dennis got it from?

I went to the new school at Jaffray for my sixth year and promptly got in a fight over whose turn it was at bat in a scrub softball game. Now, any fighting on the schoolgrounds was punishable by strapping. I managed to stay home from school with a stomach ache the next day and then wore band aids on my hands when I returned. I did not get strapped.

Someone had forgotten.

When I began teaching in the 1970s I had a Grade 6 student who had been failed twice. 

He was almost as big as me and did silly things for attention.

Once, on a community concert bus ride, he decided to entertain the other students by opening the bus Emergency door. When this was reported to the principal he decided a strapping was in order.

Ricky held out his hand and the principal grabbed his wrist. After one smack Ricky laid down on the floor and put his hands under him, refusing to get up.  He sat out the day.

I had to witness all this and sign a document. I am sure I had flashbacks! 

Strapping was taken out of the School Act in 1972 by the NDP government as it was felt that there was little to be gained by physical punishment, other than resentment and more physical punishment continuing on to others.

Was this abuse?  Many parents did not think so as it was still the time of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Thankfully, we have moved on from this attitude.

St. Eugene’s Mission at Cranbrook had the Indigenous Catholic school for the area, but there seemed to be very little connection to the public school system. The reserve near Waldo sent their children to Grasmere public school. We knew and were taught very little about Indigenous people.

However, it has now become blatantly obvious that discipline in these residential schools was often extreme and personal. Indigenous people have demanded full disclosure of any records from the Catholic church and the federal government. It is impossible to imagine any reason why they should not get them and much greater efforts to right the wrongs by compensation or even the justice system. 

There needs to be full public disclosure, on all sides, as to what was happening in residential schools in those rough decades.

Fortunately, for me, I also have many good memories of elementary school and even my old report cards. I do not resent being strapped, but am glad strapping is gone for the youth of today.

Indigenous people who attended residential schools will have a much tougher time putting bad memories aside, and we should all be prepared to help however possible.

Reg Volk is a Lake Country resident and former educator. His column appears monthly.