Inuvik—Verna H. Firth considers herself one of the lucky ones. She attended an Indian residential school and unlike former students who have reported being abused, she has only good memories of her four years at a residential school.
Born and raised in Aklavik, Firth was 15 when her parents sent her here in 1964 to finish high school at the Sir Alexander MacKenzie Day School. The schools in Aklavik offered classes only until Grade 8 and her parents had said, “Education was so important that we had to go and get it,” said Firth.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Firth said she enjoyed her time at the school and at the Anglican-run hostel, Stringer Hall, where she boarded.
The hostel supervisor, the Rev. Leonard Holman, and his wife, Dorothy, “were wonderful people, and so were the other staff,” said Firth. “Mrs. Holman was a real mother to everybody.” She could be strict – for instance, smoking and drinking alcohol were forbidden – “but you knew it was for your own good,” added Firth.
Asked what life was like at Stringer Hall, Firth said, “Everyone had chores laid out weekly.” Saturday mornings were for doing these chores, but one could get the afternoon off to go into town to visit relatives or go to a job. Firth said she cleaned houses for members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) or the Canadian Forces.
During her time there, Firth said she had no experience of students being forbidden to speak their language. “From what I know, you always heard them speak in their language and they didn’t get disciplined,” she said.
Today, she credits her parents, the Holmans, and the years she spent at the school “for the success we’ve made in our lives.” From her Danish-Canadian father and Inuvialuit mother (a traditional drum dancer who traveled all over the world) she learned the value of hard work, family and faith; from the Holmans and the school, she learned skills that helped her get hired at a local bank right out of high school, said Firth.
Firth, who is a member of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Council of General Synod, currently works at the finance department of the provincial government of Northwest Territories. She met her husband, James, and best friend, Margaret (who is James’s second cousin), while at Stringer Hall.
“I can’t speak for anybody but myself,” Firth qualifies. “I only have positive things to say about my time at the residential school. There are a lot of sad and bad stories, but there are good ones, too. I am happy and glad that I went to Stringer Hall. That’s only me, one out of however many.”
Firth thinks her experience turned out differently because she was already in her teens when she went to the school, she was not forced to attend, she had a sister who worked as a cook in the hostel, and the staff at Stringer Hall treated students well. She could also go home every Christmas, Easter and summer, unlike other students who were picked up over the Labour Day long weekend in September, and were only flown home June 30 of each year.
“The ones who are hurting were the ones who were taken as children and spent lots more years than we did,” said Firth. “I look at my grandchildren now and think that those people were taken at that age. I can’t imagine somebody taking my grandchildren away from me. I would go nuts. Can you imagine what their parents went through?”
Firth heard of the hardships and suffering from some former students who related their experiences at the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) held here June 27 to July 1. Firth was one of the Anglicans who assisted the Anglican delegation—which included the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz—that participated at the event.
The TRC was created as part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement involving former students, the federal government and churches—including the Anglican Church of Canada—which administered federally-funded schools. The TRC is mandated to document the testimonies of former students and to educate Canadians about the 130-year legacy of the residential schools that were created in the 19th century as part of the government’s policy of assimilating native children.
“We never even knew…. You hear of some people telling their stories and you knew them and yet you never knew that they had that experience,” Firth said. Some of those who spoke of either being physically, sexually and emotionally abused were former residents of Stringer Hall and the Roman Catholic-run Grollier Hall.
Stringer Hall, named in honour of Bishop Isaac O. Stringer, a well-known bishop of the diocese of the Yukon, had a majority of Inuit residents. Grollier Hall, named after Father P. Grollier, founder of the first Roman Catholic Mission in northern Canada, included a mix of native Indian and Inuit children. Both had some Métis and white students as well.
“Students were drawn from throughout the Arctic and Mackenzie District, including locations such as the Bootkia Peninsula, Banks and Victoria Islands, Spence Bay, Coppermine, Cambridge Bay and many settlements along the lower Mackenzie River,” according to a General Synod Archives information sheet. “Anglican hostels at Fort McPherson and Fort Simpson took in some of the overflow.