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.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
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
PHOTO: NY TIMES
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?"
In all, 93,000 living Canadian Indians, nearly 1 in 10, are estimated to have passed through the schools, and hundreds of thousands more have suffered as the children of survivors.
Here in Ditidaht, all those older than 45 attended the Port Alberni school, and all those younger were brought up by a parent or grandparent who had gone to the school and had suffered abuse there. In addition to attacks by school personnel, some students were were raped or abused by older students.
"They put us in the residential schools that taught us violence and now they take away our children for slapping them the way we were slapped at the schools," said Maureen Knighton, 41, who told other women in a healing group how social workers took two of her three children away for three months in 1996 when her drinking got out of hand.
In between chanting, burning sage and cedar in an abalone shell, and brushing themselves with an eagle feather, the women recalled how a government agent forcibly took them from their parents. They said they were made to change their names, give up their language and eat worm-infested porridge, all under the threat of lashings and other punishment.
A fuller accounting of the abuses is beginning to take place in the courts, and in 1998 a former minister of Indian Affairs formally apologized for the residential school program, an acknowledgment many Canadian Indians consider inadequate.
At the same time, the government set up the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, an agency backed by C$250 million to study the legacy of the schools and distribute grants for healing projects for 130,000 Indian people. But the foundation has been forced to trim its operations for lack of funds as the money runs out.
Some native leaders are pressing to take the government to an international court on human rights charges to embarrass it into providing more money.
With the money they have received, public schools in Indian communities are teaching native languages and dance to shore up cultural identity and pride. Scores of spiritual workers are visiting villages to spread the message of healing.
Daisy Edwards, 48, is one such counselor. Visiting a women's therapy group in Ditidaht recently, she recalled her years as a prostitute and the rape by her father, who also attended a residential school. Her path to healing, she said, began the day she stopped herself from beating her daughter. "I looked down to the floor and I saw this terrified face and my daughter saying, `Mommy, Mommy don't hurt me,'" she said. "I spent the next 13 years trying to figure out how I got there."
More than 1,000 residential school victims have received court compensation in the last decade, and 12,000 more have filed claims. Three years ago the Canadian government set up the Office of Residential Schools Resolution to deal with the issue and distribute small out-of-court settlements.
In early February, the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that it would appeal a lower British Columbia court ruling that held the national government entirely liable for a local residential school settlement. (The government wants churches held accountable as well.) Canadian Indian leaders say the decision was salt in their wounds.
"They broke down our people," said Jack George Thompson, 56, Ditidaht's elected chief. He is preparing to sue the government for damages, saying that he was repeatedly beaten and raped at the Port Alberni school.
Thompson said he drank excessively for 40 years. Now that he is sober he is trying to negotiate new treaty land rights and lobby for more aid. "The government and most people in Canada haven't come to terms with the residential schools," he said. "They don't believe our stories, and while they take credit for pushing human rights and aiding people who suffer in Africa they refuse to look in their own backyard."
In the meantime, healing will come slowly. The complexities of the task, Thompson said, are apparent when he and other village elders gather their people to talk about what kind of touching is appropriate between father and daughter.
A number of the men just shake their heads and walk away, he said. "They don't want to hear about it, because that's just their way."
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