Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Native Canadians addressing past abuse

A large number of Indians suffered abuse in residential schools where their culture was denied and they were often violently abused in a program aimed at assimilation

By Clifford Krauss  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DITIDAHT, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Clarence Dennis, center, is prepared for a healing ceremony at the former Indian residential school in Port Albini, British Columbia, last month. Denis was repeatedly raped by two administrators at the town's residential school that he attended. He later became homelesess and spent 18 years in jail for robbery and assault.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Vancouver Island is home to many seemingly idyllic Canadian Indian villages like this one, where bald eagles swirl overhead, deep fir and cedar forests scent the air and windy Nitinat Lake offers plenty of wild salmon, crab and trout for the 200 residents.

But among the island's forests and sheltered coves, Clarence Dennis drifted -- drinking, robbing and hurting his children. Daisy Edwards spent years in a stupor, working as a prostitute after being raped by her father. Jack George Thompson beat his family, stuck a pistol in his mouth and nearly pulled the trigger.

Their stories, like those of many others here, have a common thread: a childhood spent at one of the more than 100 residential schools for Canadian Indians financed for more than a century by the government to force assimilation.

The abuses at the schools, the last of which was closed in 1986 and which were run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, are well documented. Lawsuits have been filed against the churches and the Canadian government.

With government aid, the villagers are trying to heal, mixing Western psychological tools with traditional religious ceremonies to try to draw a line on a history of abuse that they and social workers say has become a generational legacy.

Root of problems

No comprehensive study has yet measured the full damage wrought by the schools. But a growing body of scholarly work suggests that their legacy is at the root of social ills in scores of native villages and among Indians who have migrated to large Canadian cities.

One government-financed study noted that almost a quarter of convicted pedophiles, rapists and those who committed incest are Canadian Indians, who make up about 3 percent of the population. The study concluded that there was a link between attendance at the schools and becoming a sex offender. (Canadian Indians were also more likely to be prosecuted, it said.)

The therapies have ranged from individual or group sessions with licensed professionals to traditional native prayer sessions and ritual bathing in rivers and streams. Help centers provide treatments like drumming ceremonies and sweat lodges, the traditional cleansing saunas set up in domed tents where people can confess and chant.

Clarence Dennis, 62, has been homeless and a drifter for most of his life since he left the Port Alberni Indian residential school, which was run by the United Church of Canada. He spent 18 years in jail for robbery and assault. No relationship with a woman ever worked out for long. "I couldn't have sex without thinking about being raped," Dennis said.

He said that Arthur Henry Plint, who supervised the Port Alberni school during two five-year intervals until 1968, and another school administrator took turns raping him, beginning when he was 7. Plint was sentenced in 1995 to 11 years in prison for 16 counts of indecent assault.

Recently, Dennis gathered the courage to return to the school for a cleansing ceremony with his 29-year-old son, David, whom he had abandoned. His face streaked with charcoal, his forehead and midsection wrapped in spruce branches, he closed his eyes as his off-and-on girlfriend sang an Indian song about a deer who escapes a hunter.

"I have been violent with my children and I didn't know where it came from," David Dennis said, adding that he, too, has gone for counseling after years of misbehavior and three months in jail for auto theft. "Every one of my brothers is disrespectful to women. How do you count the casualties on this battlefield?"

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