Surviving residential school

Dave Rundle

His story doesn’t begin with a stranger in shadow-black darkening the door of his log cabin, but it is the first thing he mentions.

It was the day in 1955 the priest came with papers in hand and the determination to steal away Dave Rundle, 10, and his brother Lawrence, 5, from their parents and grandparents, to force them into Fort Alexander Residential School.

The priest knocked. Rundle (pictured) opened the door to the towering figure in his black cassock.

“And it wasn’t Johnny Cash,” says the now 75-year-old with a chuckle. He pardons the joke. “Humour sometimes helps.”

Rundle’s mother and the priest spoke some words incoherent to young ears, and after a time, his mother signed the papers and told the boys to get ready to leave. The priest put them into the back of a Ford Model T, where three other Indigenous boys waited.

As the car started off, clunking along the dirt path, Rundle and his brother turned back to look out the window. His mother and grandmother stood, watching them leave.

“They were crying,” says Rundle. “My brother and I started crying because we saw our parents and we were going away. And the three other boys in the vehicle, they too started to cry.”

For the next five years, Rundle and his brother would be separated from family, who moved to Winnipeg to find work, 10 months of the year. They would be robbed of familial love and caring. They would be degraded and hurt and denied their language and culture.

However, Rundle’s story truly began in his first 10 years, at what is now called Sagkeeng First Nation, when he hauled water from the river for his mother, when his grandmother told him stories and taught him to be kind and honourable when his grandfather showed him how to set snares on rabbit tracks and said to him: “When you hunt deer, you need to know the habits of the animal you’re hunting.”

It was a story told in Anishinaabe.

“It was the best time of my life. I was so happy,” says Rundle. “It was a good life. We weren’t rich at all. We were piss poor, but we had lots to eat.”

The priest that took him from this life drove him to Fort Alexander Residential School — a huge, three-story building, a church and a groundskeeper’s cabin surrounded by Manitoba prairie. It was run by a Catholic order of missionary nuns called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Oblate nuns, which included this order and others, ran most of the Roman Catholic residential schools in Canada.

“We walked upstairs and came into the reception area,” says Rundle, “and that’s where the nuns met us.”

The nuns made the boys strip and bathe, and they cut their hair with scissors and mechanical clippers, speaking all the while in English, a language neither Rundle nor his brother understood.

When this was done, Rundle and his brother thought they could go. They put on their jackets and started walking home. When a group of boys ran after them, they fled, thinking they were in for a beating. But the boys caught up.

“There was such a sense of hopelessness, loneliness. Who could you tell that would do anything about it? There was no nurturing, There was no one to speak to if you were feeling down or something was bothering you. There was a sense of bitterness, anger, frustration.”

“They didn’t hurt us. They just said you can’t go home. You got to stay here,” says Rundle. “Of course, that made us cry again because we wanted to go home.”

Rundle and his brother were captive.

“There was such a sense of hopelessness, loneliness. Who could you tell that would do anything about it?” says Rundle. “There was no nurturing, There was no one to speak to if you were feeling down or something was bothering you.

“There was a sense of bitterness, anger, frustration.”

The boys had no supports but themselves when nuns humiliated a boy for peeing himself, even, as happened to Rundle, when they had asked to use the bathroom. They could not tell their parents when they were smacked across the head or the cheek or made to kneel in the corner on hard wooden floors for hours.

Rundle could not seek protection from a priest who told Rundle to pull down his pants, on the pretext of checking his cleanliness, before “he started to masturbate me.”

After that assault, Rundle went and sat on a bench. His friends called him to play.

“One of my friends, I caught the look in his eye — as if he knew what the hell had happened,” says Rundle.

The boys banded together. They bet their rations of lard and bread on foot races and other contests. Rundle remembers two boys, Elmer Courchene and Phil Fontaine, who took to carrying little Lawrence on their shoulders to keep watch over him.

On Oct. 30, 1990, Fontaine, then-head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, denounced the physical, emotional and sexual abuse at Fort Alexander in an interview on national television. He called for an inquiry, which would not come until after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada formed in 2008.

In the interview, Fontaine said: “Inevitably, if a group of us get together to talk about our experiences in residential school, in this case the one in Fort Alexander, we end up joking and laughing about what we experienced. And I think that’s essentially a way of avoiding embarrassment and shame.”

Humour sometimes helps.

Rundle didn’t see any deaths but did hear rumours about them. Years later, at a gathering of survivors, a few women who’d been held in the girls’ dorms had told him they suspected people had died.

What he did experience first-hand was the loss of family connection. Continue reading

Where to get help

  • If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)
  • Better Blokes which provides peer support throughout Auckland, including a specific Pacific group.
  • Male Survivors Aotearoa offers a range of confidential support at centres across New Zealand – find your closest one here.
  • Mosaic – Tiaki Tangata: 0800 94 22 94 (available 11am – 8pm)
  • If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.
Additional reading

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