Assimilation Versus Adaptation
By Theodore Syrette
Author’s note: This piece was written in the summer of June 2011 for a cross-cultural/multi-perspective/intergenerational look at Canada’s Residential School system. Assimilation vs. Adaptation is the third monologue in a three part project about the journey in uncovering the story about my grandmother, who attended St. Joseph’s Residential School in Spanish Ontario.
In the summer of 2010, I had taken an offer to spearhead a theatre project in Garden River. This opportunity offered me to attend a three week internship with Debajehmujig Theatre Group, which is based out of Wikwemikong Unceeded First Nation on Manitoulin Island. One day while talking to the receptionist (and social guru of Wiki) Audrey I mentioned that my grandmother was originally from the same reservation as her. I told her the family name and she said, “Okay I know your family, do you want me to get in touch with them so you guys can meet?” Within that moment I was nervous and scared but also excited. I was going to meet my grandmother’s relations. My response was “Yes.”
A few days later, while working in the studio two women and two little girls walked into the centre. They were looking for a Terry Syrette from Sault Ste. Marie. I was no Terry but I knew who they were; they were my family. Verna, my cousin, asked if I would like to go have tea with them and meet other members of the family. I grabbed my bag, said baamaapii to my co-workers and headed to my grandmother’s reservation.
As we drove through the community I was trembling with excitement. I had never met these people before and in the back of my mind I thought I was being abducted. However, I was already in the car and it was too late to escape or second guess the current situation. I prayed I had on clean underwear. Funny now that I think about it, I was an Aboriginal person being abducted in a strange town, and was being brought back to a reserve to reconnect with my family, my grandmother’s home. She stayed on my mind throughout the entire process.
When I met other family members in Wiki the first thing I noticed was that almost all of them were visibly Aboriginal. They looked like me. The brown sheep of the family found his matching flock. They mentioned that my gram was always a bit different from the rest, reserved, introverted and kept to just her immediate family. When her mother passed away when she was at St. Joseph’s, she returned to Wiki to assist her family. My cousins noticed that she had changed. She was even more distant compared to before.
She learned how to sew while she was a student at St. Joseph’s Residential School for girls in Spanish. She would later work for numerous dress stores and had an extensive list of clientele in Sault Ste. Marie. She was raised Catholic and the school in Spanish was run by the Roman Catholic Church. I discovered that my grandmother knew her traditional language, but had forgotten it after years of being in Residential School. She had a sister at St. Joseph’s, but she had passed away after falling ill. Yet in contrast to hearing so many horror stories that happened within these schools, my grandmother’s story was one of gratitude and of personal growth.
She wondered why people always complained about the school – perhaps because she had never faced the treatment that other students were a part of. She worked as a seamstress later on in life and was grateful that the school taught her how to sew since she developed her trade there. Some of her fond memories there included playing baseball with her sister and sending notes to her brother Morris by hiding them in the brim of the Father’s hat. When her mother passed away, she returned to Wiki to help with her family. She left behind the residential school she spent most of her childhood growing up at.
One of the final notes that my aunt informed me of my grandmother was that she never liked the fact that her own children had to walk a certain distance to get picked up to go school. She appreciated that her classroom was always just down the stairs from her bed. She also said that if the schools were still in operation she said she would have sent her own children to these places. After acquiring the following information on my grandmother, the serious questions I had to ask myself was “Did the government and church manage to kill the Indian within my grandmother through assimilation?” or “Was my grandmother always open to the idea of identity adaptation?”
There were so many questions left unanswered and the only person available to answer them is no longer alive. My findings about my grandmother attending a residential school came two months too late. Before she passed away I remember sitting in her cold hospital room and I held her hand. There was so much I wanted to share, so much I wished I could have told her. About who I was and how much I was sorry for not making that connection with one another. Our stagnant and queer interactions became a rehearsal of a fine dance of respecting personal boundaries and never getting too close to one another. We were estranged from one another, but we respected each other’s family titles, we just didn’t know who each other were personally. As she lay sleeping or unconscious a nurse walked into the room and I told her, “this is my grandmother, but I don’t know who she is.” Several hours later, I received the call that the woman who I had called ‘gram’ had passed away. I was the last family member to see her and say ‘good bye’.
In 2001, I began volunteering at the Shingwauk Research Centre at Algoma University for the Shingwauk Gatherings Conferences. I researched about Residential Schools and the Federal apology from Stephen Harper and about the retributions that followed. She never liked to talk about her experience at St. Joseph’s, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I discovered that she attended a residential school. Nine years of research and I had no clue that this process of systemic assimilation would strike so close to home.
I was left longing to know more about my grandmother’s experience. Unfortunately the archives could only go back to 1943 for Spanish and my grandmother attended School there in the possible 1920’s to 1930’s. I did find a medical record of when she was around nine years old and how she had a couple of teeth pulled in 1935. Her name was spelt wrong, which was a common occurrence throughout the process of documenting students. No doubt in my mind and with the stories I have uncovered, misspelt name or not my grandmother Marguerite Stella Fox attended St. Joseph’s Residential School for girls in Spanish, Ontario.
Before I saw the shell that once was the school she attended when she was around six years old, I had never known anything about that part of her past. What I do know is that she only talked about the positive experiences there at Spanish and how it assisted her on becoming the person that she became: A respected woman of her trade, a devoted person of her faith, a council woman for Batchewana First Nation, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She was my grandmother. She used her faith to remain strong and to better herself as a person. I honour that aspect about her. For if it were me within her place, I’m sure my experience would be much different.
On one of my many adventures while interning at Debaj and living in Manitoulin Island, my roommate and I stumbled across a waterfall. Near the falls there were some trees that were being prepared to be cleared. Their lower branches had all been removed, but the trees still stood tall. As I looked at the trees I had a moment of clarity and thought of my grandmother and other people who were also affected by Residential Schools. With their hurt they had the choice to succumb to their injuries and fall down or learn from their pain and embark on some kind of healing process. Like these trees, they have been hurt but continue to live on and grow.
I could never be as strong as her, for I will never be her, but I will try to understand where she was coming from, and how she chose to cope. Through humour and conversation her story lives on through me. It is now my choice to bring awareness about residential schools to others who may not as easily understand this dark spot in Canada’s history. However, no blame should be given only knowledge that it had happened and to make sure that this silent assimilation and genocide never repeats itself.
When I was a boy my grandmother made me a ribbon shirt when I began to attend Pow Wows. I am grateful that she had done this. I am also grateful that I was a chubby kid, because today I can still wear it. Miigwetch Nokomis, Miigwetch
Theodore Syrette is from Batchewana First Nation and grew up on the Rankin Reserve. He is a recent graduate of the Social Service Worker – Native Specializiation program at Sault College. His experience as a creative artist includes writing, directing, acting, story telling and improvisation. Theodore is a social media guru and currently works as a resource and information specialist at the Sault Community Career Resource Centre. Theodore is passionate about life and for the well being of other people around him. A self proclaimed advocate for the queer and transgendered people, Theodore’s creation pieces incorporate art and themes of social awareness that include homophobia, racism and mental health. He pulls inspiration for his work by living in Northern Ontario and writes about what is his truth and his journeys in life. Theodore is an uncle to three boys and currently lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.