I didn’t know that Treaty Day in Fort Providence, N.W.T., in the 1950s and ‘60s was also TB testing day. These aren’t the kind of facts that are always stored together, except in the memory of the people who experienced them.
“Back then, everyone had X-rays taken because of tuberculosis,” writes Albert Canadien in his memoir, From Lishamie. “A doctor was present and X-rays were taken in another special tent. There was a generator outside the tent that provided the necessary power for the X-ray machines.”
Canadien, who is now in his 70s, was born in the small village of Lishamie, just a few miles outside of Fort Providence. The name of the village came from the South Slavey term for “Richard’s fishnets.” An actual Richard, a francophone, had nets there, so this is a reminder of the extremely personal nature of the history of the sparsely populated N.W.T.
Canadien — older readers will know this — was also a founding member of the Chieftones, a highly successful touring band in the 1960s and ‘70s. (Their song, “I Shouldn’t Have Did What I Done,” was on the amazing Native North America compilation that came out a few years ago.) The book assumes you know this fact, and who the Chieftones were, so I’d suggest googling them before reading.
But the book says little about Canadien’s musical life. Instead, it documents the seven years he spent in the Sacred Heart Residential School in Fort Providence. Seven cold, alienating years, punctuated by brief trips home to spend time on the land with his dad.
In all that time, Canadien remembers one time — and one time only — when one of the Grey Nuns was kind to him. It was when the news of his mother’s death was delivered. He was seven.
“I cried as she held me and whispered that my mother was in heaven and would be looking after me from then on. No one else came around to see how I was doing in the chapel, so she stayed with me awhile. Later, she walked me back to the boys’ recreation room and asked me to go to mass the next day and pray for my mother.”
Canadien remembered this kindness all his life and visited Sister Kristoff for many years afterwards.
“I always thought of her as the only nun who had a true calling for her vocation. I believe some became nuns because it had been a family tradition, not necessarily because of religious commitment or conviction. Maybe this is what caused the Sisters to take their frustrations out on the children in the form of physical and mental abuse. I am not trying to make excuses for them or for their actions. I just feel there has to be some reason or explanation behind such cruel behaviour, and this is the only logical reason I can think of.”
His memoir documents a lot of this cruelty, all of it underlaid by a cold indifference that bewilders young Canadien, and puts him permanently on edge. The cruelty is pervasive, and terrifying.
“We learned about mortal sin and the original sin, and we were taught that we were all born with original sin… I often wondered about the old people and babies who had died long before the missionaries had arrived among us. What had happened to the souls of those people?”
Canadien describes working in the school garden, hauling and cutting wood, skating on a makeshift rink and playing games in the schoolyard. Tellingly, he writes little about friendships. Instead, he describes tense scenes where students look on in horror, not reacting, not knowing what to do.
Many authors have compared the residential school system to the holocaust. Canadien does this too, not in a political sense, but through a sense of blank recognition.
“Some years later in high school, I saw a documentary film about the Third Reich,” Canadien writes. “…whole scenes would bring back memories of my time at the big, grey building.”
Canadien writes — like many northern memoirists, actually — like someone acutely conscious that they way of life they were born into was slipping away, and conscious from a very young age. His book recounts fishing trips, moose hunts, bear hunts, and river trips. These are told lovingly, ecstatically.
Especially one trip, where his father heads out in the canoe to check fishnets, then returns with the news that he felled a moose. Young Albert, along with his uncle, is invited to go butcher it and bring it home. A fog rolls in; they decide to sleep outdoors.
“It was cold during the night but I stayed warm sleeping between my dad and Uncle Pierre.”
By Albert Canadien
Theytus Books, 2010