Residential Schools Podcast Episode 1: First Nations Experiences

When Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan shut its doors in 1996, it was the last federally run residential school to close. More than two decades later, the school’s legacy continues to be felt by Survivors, their families, and communities. In this episode, University of Manitoba’s Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair describes the effects of residential schools on First Nations peoples. Survivors Riley Burns and Ed Bitternose recount their personal experiences at Gordon’s. Hosted by Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, this is “Residential Schools: First Nations Experiences.”
When Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan shut its doors in 1996, it was the last federally run residential school to close. More than two decades later, the school’s legacy continues to be felt by Survivors, their families, and communities. In this episode, University of Manitoba’s Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair describes the effects of residential schools on First Nations peoples. Survivors Riley Burns and Ed Bitternose recount their personal experiences at Gordon’s. Hosted by Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, this is “Residential Schools: First Nations Experiences.”


Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais: A warning to our listeners: this episode contains potentially triggering subject matter, and includes testimony directly from residential school survivors.

Riley Burns: “I didn’t want to be an Indian, I didn’t know who in the hell I wanted to be. I wasn’t accepted by the white man, I wasn’t accepted by my own people in my reserve.”

SRD: Over the course of nine years, Riley Burns survived physical and sexual abuse by staff at Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Originally from the James Smith Cree Nation, Burns was stripped of his language and culture. When he left the school in 1960, he’d lost all sense of his former life. In 2008, Riley told his story to the Legacy of Hope Foundation. “The only place I fit in was outside in the street. Then I had a sense of belonging.”Tansi, I’m your host Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, and this is Residential Schools, a three-part series from Historica Canada on the history and legacy of residential schools. In this episode, we’re talking about First Nations experiences.In the 1800s, the federal government started working with Christian churches to establish a system of residential schools across the country. These government-sponsored religious schools were part of a larger goal.


Niigaan Sinclair: “So the purpose of a residential school was, first and foremost, to assimilate and then absorb Indigenous peoples – Indians as it were – into the body politic of the country.”

SRD: That’s Dr. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, a professor at the University of Manitoba and columnist with The Winnipeg Free Press.

NS: “I’m Anishnaabe from Little Peguis, or St. Peter’s Indian Settlement, just north of Winnipeg. It’s about an hour north of Winnipeg. And you won’t find it on a map anywhere because our family and our community was removed in 1907 to what’s now Peguis First Nation which is in the middle of Manitoba’s Interlake.”

SRD: Before the first federally funded residential schools, European settlers had tried to integrate First Nations and some Métis peoples into what they considered civil society. This involved the removal of their rights, languages, cultures and traditions.Legislation was eventually introduced which made many Indigenous ceremonies forbidden by law. First Nations people often couldn’t leave their communities without the permission of Indian agents, who were the government’s representatives on reserves. Eventually, the government decided that the best way to integrate Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society was to remove the children from their communities.Today, all that’s left of the main building of Gordon’s — the school Riley Burns attended — is a big bronze bell. But for more than 100 years, from 1876 to 1996, the Anglican Church and, later, the federal government oversaw the assimilation of thousands of Indigenous children there.

NS: “Assimilation is basically trying to turn one person into another. To deny who they are, make them forget who they are – their language, their culture, tradition, the family they come from, and then replace that with something else: with a different way of thinking, a different way of being, a different perspective. The problem of course is that you then have to go and look in the mirror and you can see yourself as you actually are, but you’ve been taught this foreign way. Therefore, you’re naturally at conflict. So, assimilation is also a process of deep, deep trauma and conflict.” “So throughout the 19th century, from the post-war of 1812 all the way up to 1867, the formation of Canada, the issue of what to do with Indians, or the “Indian problem” as it were, was to then control Indigenous peoples and then, in 1876, to control their dress, to control their ability to move, to control the way they govern themselves. And then, lastly, in the 1890s begin to require Indigenous children to attend Christian-denominated schools that had been contracted by Canada to run this system, and to assimilate them.”

SRD: According to Albert Southard, a principal at Gordon’s in the 1950s, the school’s main goal was to quote: “Change the philosophy of the Indian child. In other words, since they must work and live with ‘whites,’ then they must begin to think as ‘whites.’” End quote.

NS: “Unfortunately like most schools, Gordon’s embodied the principle that Indigenous lives didn’t matter.”

SRD: In all, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools. Of those, thousands died either at school or because of their experiences in the system. Students as young as six were taken from their homes and forced to go to Gordon’s. For Riley Burns, the first time he ever ventured far from his reserve was the day he was taken to residential school.

RB: “We didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t even know, I thought we were just going for a ride for all I know.” “Then we arrive at this big building and there’s Gordon’s.”

SRD: Gordon’s was a big, red-brick building. It looked like any other school on the outside. When students arrived, they were separated by age and gender. They were told to strip, and chemicals were applied to their scalps for delousing. Often, their hair was cut short or shaved completely.

RB: “And that was the beginning.” “I used to listen to little girls crying next to the wall, hear them little girls crying for their moms. For a whole month when they first get there, that’s all you hear is crying. Little girls. Little four, five-year-old girls.”

SRD: Residential schools were overcrowded and underfunded. Survivors from schools across the country have spoken about rampant malnutrition spanning well into the 1970s. Some recall being forced to eat spoiled food, looking through garbage bins for discarded apple cores and even eating food intended for farm animals. Riley remembers this well.

RB: “Kids that didn’t have enough to eat, little kids, had to steal. You become a good thief in order to survive. You had to fight for yourself. You didn’t have time to be hugging anybody, you didn’t have time to be crying in a corner. You better be standing up and fighting for yourself otherwise you’ll be crying there for the rest of your life. And that’s the way the motto was in school. Every man, every man for himself.”

SRD: The Residential Schools podcast is part of a larger awareness campaign created by Historica Canada and funded by the Government of Canada in the spirit of reconciliation outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica also offers a video series, an education guide and several new entries on The Canadian Encyclopedia about the history and legacy of residential schools. Visit thecanadianencyclopedia.ca for more information.

A typical day at residential school: students are woken up early to do their morning chores, like farm work, something that was not part of many students’ traditional cultures. Morning mass gives way to breakfast, and then cleaning. In most schools, only two-to-four hours are devoted to actual academic learning. The rest of the day is filled by physical labour and religious study. Niigaan says these routines were based on two things:


NS: “One is that Indians are problems, and second is that Canadians are solutions. And that Indians are inferior, Canadians are superior. And then the other most important lesson is that you’re never to resist that.”


SRD: School administrators expected students to learn English or French quickly. Just one month into his stay at Gordon’s, Riley remembers being beaten for speaking Cree with a boy who came from his reserve. In the classroom, he was hit on his hands with a ruler for not understanding English.

RB: “A lot of times I stood with soap in my mouth because I talked Cree, talked my own language. That was a no-no, I didn’t know that. And I was wondering how come, I thought maybe I had a dirty mouth, but I guess maybe I did have a dirty mouth because I talked Cree.”

SRD: Four years after Riley arrived at school, a new principal took over, Reverend Albert E. Southard. He’s the one who said that Indigenous people needed to “think like white people.”Riley said everything got worse with Southard in charge.

RB: “That’s when we lived in hell. I mean hell.”

SRD: Gordon’s was rebuilt twice during the 1920s. Each time, the building was expanded. By the time Riley was there, Gordon’s housed about 120 students.Despite the rebuilds, the school was a mess. Between 1945 and 1953, the school was forced to close several times because of mechanical problems and tainted drinking water.In the fall after Southard arrived, Riley returned to school to find tall fences surrounding the building, penning the children in the yard like elk, he said.

RB: “That’s what we were. Lost our freedom, lost our ability to play like little boys, run all over the place. We weren’t allowed to do that we weren’t allowed to walk around with nothing.”

SRD: A note here that the following section details specific instances of abuse that may be triggering to some listeners. Complex feelings may emerge. Take breaks and reach out to someone you trust. If possible, seek support from someone knowledgeable about residential schools and their legacies. These may include counsellors, Indigenous knowledge keepers or other community health practitioners.

NS: “Gordon’s residential school, it comes by reputation. The school itself was a place in which rampant abuse would take place regularly, it was a place in which abuse would be witnessed by students within the school itself all the time, and it was also a place in which those legacies that came out of those schools have impacted those communities in deep and powerful ways.”

SRD: In 1956, four girls charged Southard with sexual impropriety. He denied the claims and was exonerated by a senior teacher after an in-house investigation. The next year, a school inspector was called in to investigate other allegations against Southard. But by the time the inspector arrived at Gordon’s, Southard had already quit his post and left the country.In his investigation, the inspector found that two girls who had attempted to run away from the school had had their hair cut short. One girl was hospitalized after receiving what was described as, quote, “a severe punishment,” end quote. He concluded that “the general impression conveyed was that certainly bullying is quite prevalent.” Riley remembers Southard vividly. This is how he described the principal to the Legacy of Hope, nearly fifty years after Riley left residential school:

RB: “In those two years—it seems like for 40 years—but those were the years that were rough. This man lost his mind.” “He’d take it out on the kids.” “It wasn’t our fault. But it was our fault cause we were savages. They were going to subdue us. Take away everything. Take away our language, our beliefs. They did.”

SRD: The long history of mental, physical and sexual abuse of students at Gordon’s continued over the years. Between 1968 and 1984, William Peniston Starr used his position as director at Gordon’s to target and abuse hundreds of young boys. Older students at Gordon’s would often take on the responsibility of protecting younger students. Survivors describe how they would try to stay up all night, fighting off sleep, in an attempt to stop the abuses. But there was only so much they could do. Some Survivors describe horrific abuse that was so bad they never had a chance at learning. Some never learned how to read or write.

NS: “For every story of abuse, I have heard a story of resistance.”

SRD: That’s Niigaan again.

NS: “And that resistance can be really big, like fighting back, that could be a story about escaping, running away.”

SRD: But resistance could also have serious repercussions. When eleven-year-old Andrew Gordon ran away from the school one cold March day in 1939, administrators didn’t tell his parents that he was missing. They didn’t file a report with Indian Affairs or the police either. The only reason Andrew’s father found out that his son was missing was because a visitor had told him Andrew wasn’t in school. He found his son’s frozen body three days after the boy ran away. Seven miles from school, and only a mile away from home. It wasn’t until 1993, nine years after he resigned, that William Starr was convicted of 10 counts of sexual assault. Survivors were all male students between the ages of 7 and 14 at the time of their assaults. Two-hundred and thirty people received a settlement from the federal government for the way they were treated at Gordon’s. All of them said they were abused by William Starr. He was sentenced to just four and a half years in prison.

NS: “Those stories have come out over the years very distinctly as being: the adults in power in those schools most often exploited children in sexual and physical ways, and that created legacies that then would return to those communities in some ways.”“What is less talked about, and what came out during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is probably one of the hardest things to hear, is that there was a rampant student-on-student violence.”

SRD: Ed Bitternose attended three residential schools, the first of which was Gordon’s. He was eight years old. In 2008, he told Legacy of Hope about how he was bullied and abused by older students.

Ed Bitternose: “When we got there, first we had a fight, me and one of my cousins we had a fight. And I won the fight and for winning I got hung in a well.“They hung me by my arms and left me there. And I hung there, I guess for the first period because I got to school for dinner. I didn’t tell nobody.”

SRD: Ed says that he wasn’t all that scared about being left in the dark well—it was nicer than being in school.

EB: “They come back and let me go. The exact same guys that hung me there come back and lifted me up and it was a big joke. I laughed, too. Why I laughed I don’t know.”

SRD: Ed always got into fights at school. As he got older, he turned to alcohol to deal with his trauma, and his drive to fight grew stronger. It didn’t matter if he won or lost—he didn’t need a reason to fight. By the time he sought counselling for his anger and alcoholism, he felt helpless.

EB: “I don’t know how to talk to my wife. I don’t know how to talk to my kids. I don’t know what to do with all these feelings.”

SRD: Counselling and anger management helped Ed make some kind of sense of what had happened to him at residential school. But not all Survivors have been able to access those services or are in a state of mind where they can ask for help. Studies have shown that, generally, Survivors have an increased risk of mental or physical health problems. Death by suicide and self-harm is a leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age.Niigaan says stories like Ed’s were shared again and again throughout the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

NS: “The Ojibwe storyteller Basil Johnston bravely, at the very first national event, told a story to thousands in attendance that he was abused by older boys.”“And that description was very difficult to hear because what it tells you is that not only did the children witness the abuse, but then they also learned that behaviour and they took that upon themselves.”“That is the hardest thing in which to understand, but it also indicates to you that the abuse was so rampant that students were beginning to abuse each other.”

SRD: Gordon’s Indian Residential School was the last federally run residential school in Canada. It closed in 1996 and was torn down shortly thereafter. But for Survivors, their families and friends, and their communities, the residential school system continues to haunt their day-to-day lives. When he was interviewed in 2008 by Legacy of Hope, Ed Bitternose had already let go of some of the burden of his own experiences.

EB: “The school taught me not to feel, taught me that I was less than who I was. But that’s not, you don’t have to be there. You don’t have to be that scared little fella who is afraid and just wants to strike out.” "But you don’t have to carry the fear into all that other negative stuff. You don’t have to carry that fear into anger. And it’s okay to be angry.”

SRD: In 2008, in the presence of Survivors and the House of Commons, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal statement of apology to Survivors of residential schools. He acknowledged the role of the federal government in the creation of a system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and communities, deprived them of the care and support of their families and stole their cultures and identities.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry. The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden of this experience is properly ours as a government, and as a country.”

SRD: Niigaan says that there has to be widespread action taken to heal the damages that residential schools have caused before any sort of reconciliation can begin.

NS: “It’s our job, together, to figure out how to move together forward, and the first is to recognize the truth.”“And we continue to be stuck in the truth phase, as a country, is just offering each other’s truths is the bravest thing it seems in many circumstances, but really it’s the reconciliation that’s the hard part. The truth is really hard, but the reconciliation part is even harder because then we actually have to change our behaviour.” “It’s time for Canadians to stand up as well and to take responsibility for that. This is their challenge as well.”

SRD: Riley Burns wants to make sure that the legacy is not something left to history books. The story has to be told; he says.

RB: “Not just to make another person feel guilty but to know, in Canada, things do happen this way.” “And we tell our story to prevent it from ever happening again.”

SRD: On the next episode of Residential Schools, we focus on the Métis experiences.

Louis Bellrose: “The teachers called it the devil’s language. We were punished very severely when we tried talking our own language, our mother tongue.”

SRD: Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.If you or someone you know are in need of immediate support, here are some resources:

National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419The Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 (phone services available in Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut, French and English)The Hope for Wellness Help Line also offers online support services at hopeforwellness.ca, Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868

I’m Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais. The Residential Schools podcast was written and produced by Historica Canada. The series is made possible in part by funding from the Government of Canada.

Ekosani to Riley Burns, Ed Bitternose and all of the Survivors who shared their stories. Special thanks to our consultants: Niigaan Sinclair, David Perley and Brian Maracle.

Thanks to the Legacy of Hope Foundation for providing Survivor testimony. To the University of Regina’s Shattering the Silence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings.

Fact-checking by Viviane Fairbank.

Ekosani for listening.


Special thanks to Survivors Riley Burns and Ed Bitternose. Survivor testimony for this episode was provided by the Legacy of Hope Foundation. Additional resources include University of Regina’s Shattering Silence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.
Thanks to our consultants: David Perley, a Wolastoqi scholar from Tobique First Nation and the Director of the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre and Brian Maracle (Owennatekha), an author, journalist, and teacher, and a member of the Mohawk First Nation.

Additional reading: