George Manuel, the future founder of the National Indian Brotherhood, carried
three strong memories from his years at the Kamloops, British Columbia, residential
school in the 1920s. These were: “hunger; speaking English; and being called a heathen because of my grandfather.”
The memories of hunger dominated. He was hungry from his first day at the school
until he left two and a half years later after being diagnosed with tubercular osteomyelitis (a bone infection). He was not alone: “Every Indian student smelled of hunger.”
To feed themselves, students learned how to break into the locked vegetable bins and then surreptitiously cook pilfered potatoes in fires built to dispose of weeds. When they could find nothing else, they would eat dandelion roots, rosebuds, and even leaves. His parents were able to make the journey to the school only twice a year: once at Easter and once at Christmas. “When they came they brought deer meat and bannock and other real food you could get full on.”
Manuel had little regard for the vocational training provided at the schools, feeling
that the students were not being given even the skills they would need to succeed as farmers. Most of the boys’ time was spent performing the daily round of farm chores, using antiquated equipment that would not be found on any working farm of the day. His real schooling did not begin until he was hospitalized. There, the nurses not only supplied him with the sort of books he had never seen in school, but they also taught him how to read.
Much of the students’ resistance to what was being done to them involved attempts to circumvent the rules or, more distressingly, to bully younger students. This changed at Kamloops when a group of students witnessed an older First Nations man, Alex Thomas, berating a teacher for overworking the boys. His action inspired the boys.
“A teacher would raise his yardstick to strike a student. The student would grab the
stick from the teacher’s hand and the rest of the class was instantly on top of the man. It was a crude and juvenile way of returning the violence to its source. But it was not submission.”
The harsh discipline of the schools had left students unwilling to work unless they
were threatened. As a result, according to Manuel, they were also unwilling to work on their return to their home communities. “We came home to relatives who had never struck a child in their lives. These people, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and grandparents, failed to present themselves as a threat, when that was the only thing we had been taught to understand. Worse than that, they spoke an uncivilized and savage language and were filled with superstition.”