Warning this story contains graphic content.
Speak the truth even if your voice shakes. A difficult task for survivors of Blue Quills Indian Residential School which originated in Lac la Biche.
Blue Quills Indian Residential School was also known as the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School and later the Saddle Lake Boarding School. It was later moved to St. Paul, AB in 1931, where it was renamed St. Paul’s Boarding School. Blue Quills became the first Native-administered school in Canada in 1970.
Survivors recount the day they were taken and the abuse they suffered. This is one woman’s story.
Mary Francois says she was taken to “prison” at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School when she was about seven or eight years old.
“I was taken to residential school on a big farm truck,” Francois said. “It was a dull rainy day and the trip seemed unending. Riding in smelly wet hay and crap, there were few of us that day, riding in the old truck. I can remember it was a Sunday afternoon because my mama made us wear our best.”
Francois says she wore a pink flowered dress and her braids were tied with pink ribbons.
“I remember when I first met these ugly people, I was scared,” Francois recounts ugly people referring to the Priest and the nuns. “I didn’t talk or speak English. Never mind to write. At that time, this man in the long black dress had a bag of peppermint candy and said, ‘Come, come on.’ And that was his way of cooing us into the truck. My parents had no choice, nor did I, but only jump on the truck and left. This was a terribly rough ride. I say this was the beginning of the abuse I faced for the rest of my life. I had no choice, and it was not my fault.”
Francois says she remembers walking up these concrete steps at a big red brick building with a wide entrance.
“I remember we were all silenced and some would cry, cold and hungry we all looked like little pigs, wet and dirty and smelly, we were made to line up and boys and girls were separated, they gave us numbers, and went to follow the nuns to our living quarters.”
There was the big girl’s room and the small girl’s room, Francois recounts.
“I will never forget my first number, it was number 98,” Francois said. “Even though, this was a painful memory and still is, this is the first thing they did to the children at the school behind the blanket that hung down from the pipes behind a big brown desk. Then came my turn from the lineup, I was suddenly grabbed by my braids and pink ribbons, and got swung around, and saw a big pair of scissors, in the hands of the nun, I started crying and was frightened and down came my braids and ribbons that moment. I was defeated, I was frustrated, I was obsessed and haunted and troubled for life. I was filled with shame, guilt that festered my whole life and experience daily suffering in my mind. Never a day passes by without thinking of the stuff that happened to us, or me.”
Francois says while she was in a residential school she experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, words, and unwanted fondling with hands from the priests and masters.
“I was deprived of my childhood of growing up in residential school, I was forced labored scrubbing concrete floors and stairs with toothbrushes on hands and knees,” Francois said. “I was made to iron boys handkerchiefs, socks and shirts and all kinds of linen shirts. Today, I can’t stand an iron or don’t even own an ironing board.”
Francois says she was made to pray daily morning till night, go to the chapel and confess.
“Confess what? I was an innocent child and they made us liars. They punished us in any way they could. I used to work in the kitchen. I was told to save the leftovers for the farm pigs. I covered them in clean pans and stuck them into the cooler,” Francois said. “Then on weekends, the nuns made shepherd’s pie out of the leftovers. There was fish, kidney beans, oatmeal, you name it ground up and covered with mashed potatoes and cut up wieners on top of it to make it look good. We were the pigs. We had any inadequate food to eat, how dare I got caught.”
Suffered a permanent physical injury
Francois says she was physically harmed from life in that school at a young age and recalls a physical injury she suffered while “In prison.”
“My lower back tailbone is permanently damaged for life,” Francois said. “I suffer from pain every day, and one doctor told me, no doctor in the world could fix it. If we tried to fix it, you may end up in a wheelchair for life I was told. The only way I could sit up, now, is to cross my legs. This been like this has been like this my whole life. My pain is so bad that I can’t even sit up or lay down. The nun physically picked me up and threw me out the door and my gumbo caught on their big shoe scraper that was welded into the concrete step, and I fell backward and landed hard and blacked out.”
The next thing she remembers about that day is waking up in an infirmary on a bed in a dark room.
“I was scared and couldn’t move and in pain,” Francois said. “Once a day I was fed chicken noodle soup and three crackers and Jello and milk. This went on and on for many months or days. No matter how much I screamed and cried, no one came. This was a horrible feeling. I laid on a pillow in a bedpan finally in a dark room. The only way the pain eased. I could still hear the rattle of the keys and the lights would go out.”
Francois says she pretended she wasn’t in pain, so they let her out and she went downstairs.
“There were no health standards then,” Francois said. “What if there was a fire in that school, what would have happened to me then. I think about this while I suffer in pain today.”
Francois says she was de-liced monthly with the other children in a pan of coal, and oil, with the lice floating in the pan.
“They cut my hair shorter,” Francois said. “They made us brush our teeth with coarse salt daily lined up, we would reach out our hand and they would pour the salt in it.”
She says the nuns and priest checked her panties, or bloomers daily, and they gave them two sheets of toilet paper to use.
“We went to the bathroom on their time when the bell rang, never the natural way,” Francois said. “We went to bed early, only to watch the red exit light and cry ourselves to sleep. We got up on their time and prayed and went to church on their time. They taught us the Latin language with a thick book. My question for what? I was spiritually harmed and was lost in my younger days, they gave me castor oil daily and vitamins pulled my teeth, and filled them without freezing.”
Francois says she remembers being given glasses.
“The glasses ruined my eyesight for life,” Francois said. “The clothing was horrible, all the same dresses, canvas slips, canvas bloomers, long stockings, small shoes to wear all year or ten months say. Army green woolen coats and gumboots.”
“Today I dress the way I want. And I’m very particular about colors,” Francois said.
Pulled by the ears
A couple of times Francois got punished by staff at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School.
“I was locked up in a little room under the stairway, where they kept kerosene and other cleaning stuff and chemicals,” Francois said. “This room was for the girls when they got punished. They also kept a bag of long black braids which they cut off the children’s heads.”
Francois says that while she was locked in that room she remembers finding her braids with the pink ribbons.
“I cried and cried. I was traumatized for life. I hate the nuns and the school,” Francois said. “I remember the fear, anger and freaking out, helpless feeling that impacted my life today”
Francois says the nuns even created a civil war between the Cree and Chipewyan children on a constant basis.
“They watched us fight like cats and dogs,” Francois said. “This was an everyday ritual for those nuns for their enjoyment. Therefore supervision was totally uncalled for. The bell rang and all quit, kids were crying, scratched up, pulled hair, and muffled our ears.”
How dare she continue to cry Francois says or she would get pulled by the ears.
“So we just licked our wounds like a puppy dog and tried to forget,” Francois said. “This may sound beyond belief, but it’s true. How can I make up stories? If all these abuses have not occurred to me and the rest.”
As a child being away from home is never easy. Francois says the children at Blue Quills Indian Residential School were forced to write identical letters which the nuns sent off to their parents.
“Everyone copied off the blackboard, identical letters,” Francois said.
The letter read:
How are you? I am fine. Please do not worry about me. The sisters and priests are nice to me.
Francois says how did she even know her letter was mailed, she would seal the note and hand it to the nuns.
“Meanwhile they tortured us all and me,” she recounts. “Everything they did was mind-boggling. How can I ever forget this.”
In the classroom, year after year, Francois says she was taught how to read and write.
“How dare I make a mistake, there was always a threat there,” Francois said. “They kept a yardstick and a leather belt. If you’d make a mistake, I get a whipping, or a yard on the knuckles or even write lines.”
Francois says that’s the reason why she hated school and was unable to continue her education because of what happened to her in residential school. She also says there was endless mental abuse.
“The nuns continued to say mean words to me, you will never amount to anything, never learn anything, they called me a pig, savage, bush Indian. I recall everything they said. Even when they swore in French to me. I remember that they drilled it in my mind, they called me stupid Indian, dummy, lazy, and you know I never got a hug or had good things said to me.”
Francois says now she lives a life of depression, anxiety seasonal disorders.
“I hate certain times of seasons because of what they did to me,” Francois said. “I still have resentful feelings, anger, fear, hatred, jealousy towards anyone that had done wrong to me. My mind has a powerful memory just like a computer disc. It’s because of what was done to me as a child. I’ll never forget it. My life is like a roller coaster person for what they did to me through my mind body and spiritual emotions. I have sleeping disorders now, I am able to think it’s because of residential school.”
This story is just the tip of what Mary Francois can recall it’s not all the story.
“I have no mercy on any priests and nuns for what they’ve done to me. How can the Catholic organization ask for a pardon? I owe you nothing. You owe me millions for the damages you caused me. It’s like an electric current going through my mind and body, these abuses that have occurred to me while being in residential school have created significant problems throughout my lifetime.”
Francois says she remembers all and most everything that has been done to her. These memories of hers have developed into anger, hate, fear, low self-esteem, while her physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual self was tortured.
“I have a brain like everyone else, my conscious mind and subconscious mind, there are flashbacks that happen daily,” Francois said. “All the negative stuff that happened to me while in residential school has a tremendous impact on my life. I’m just a survivor, I know I’m not alone. I thank our Creator every day.”
Childhood memories before Blue Quills Residential School
Life was simple before Mary was taken to Blue Quills Residential School in St. Paul when she was seven years old. She was raised up on the English Bay Reserve in Cold Lake and spent her childhood days with her mother, father, and grandmother up on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range when it used to be Primrose.
“This is where the whole family had their homes and cabins,” Francois said. “This is where I learned to live traditionally. They taught me how to trap animals, and skin them, dry the pelts, dry meat, make dry fish, pemmican, bannock, beading, tan hides, and sewing.”
Francois also learned traditional medicines and was taught never to lose the Dene Yatlia.
“I’m thankful I can speak the Dene language fluently and very thankful for my grandmother’s teachings and all my relations who taught me the traditional ways of listening and living,” Francois concluded.