Joe Gosnell in front of the provincial legislature in Victoria.

School days

Nisga'a leader was only seven years old when sent away

  • Mon Nov 9th, 2015 4:00pm
  • News

Like many aboriginal children of his generation, Joe Gosnell, the Nisga’a leader who steered the Nisga’a Nation toward its 2000 land claims treaty with the federal and provincial governments, was sent to a residential school.

Thanks to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the residential school system has been exposed as a deliberate attempt to obliterate indigenous cultures by breaking the connection between aboriginal children and their heritage.

But Gosnell recalls another far more nuanced story of his years at St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, as described in the book “Spirit Dance at Meziadin” by Alex Rose.

As a boy, Gosnell played in the long grass along the Nass River’s banks and he and his friends paddled the river’s complicated tides and whirling currents.

In those days, long before the road was built from Terrace, the river was the highway to the Nisga’a villages, serving both as an obstacle to posterity and a geographical line of defence against further incursions by white settler society.

When he was seven years old, the government intervened in Joseph’s life in dramatic fashion: the local Indian Agent decreed that all Nisga’a children were to be sent away to a church-run residential school.

In 1943, Gosnell was one of 15 Nisga’a children lined up to board a steamship idling at the wharf at Inverness Cannery near present day Prince Rupert. His mother stood by weeping. “As I stood on the dock with my brother Ben, my mother kept saying to us in Nisga’a – we didn’t know any English then – ‘You are going away to learn, to learn and to be educated.’”

After a two-day sea voyage, with stops at Klemtu and River’s Inlet to pick up more aboriginal children, the steamship arrived at St. Michael’s Residential School (Anglican), a foreboding structure in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island north of Campbell River.

For the next six years, Gosnell survived a harsh discipline. Although he neither experienced, nor heard, of the sexual abuse and physical brutality that has since been exposed in many other residential schools, his experience wasn’t easy. “That was a rough life. The discipline was extremely hard. Oh, well do I know the taste of soap,” Gosnell says, recalling the Anglican brothers washing his mouth out with soap for speaking Nisga’a.

Every night you could hear children crying in the dormitories.”

Forbidden to speak their own language, the Nisga’a children whispered secretly to each other in Nisga’a. But over time English become the common language.

Like many aboriginal people of his generation, Gosnell recalls always being hungry. “We never had enough to eat and we had to eat the food that was placed before us, whether we liked it or not.”

Despite the suppression of his language and culture, always running through his dreams in the prison-like building so far from home was the great, dark Nass River, from which his people draw their very identity – the first schools of oolichan in spring and the silver flash of the first coho salmon as they enter the river. “I’ve been to the headwaters of the Nass,” he will say today. “At Lake Meziadin the water is so clear you can see 400 feet down into the lake.”

Though vivid, the memories of his homeland were not enough to sustain him against a government determined to “enlighten” him in European ways. On his return from residential school — his Grade 5 certificate in his back pocket — Gosnell returned to his village without a history. He had to be de-programmed, working hard to re-learn the Nisga’a language and re-discovering who he was.

Today, the 65-year-old Gosnell doesn’t blame his parents for sending him away. “Like all Nisga’a parents they faced incredible psychological intimidation to conform. They were ordered by the Indian Agent to send us away, part of the assimilation policy. On the contrary, I thank them for what they did for me, instilled in me the importance of the culture that we maintain today. My mother always said, ‘Don’t ever forget our language.’”

Over the years, Gosnell has been able to reflect on the impact of the residential schools, an impact still felt throughout Nisga’a communities today. He has never once considered a lawsuit against the church or the federal government. “I wouldn’t want to put my children through the same thing — never in a thousand years. When I first arrived at St. Michael’s, I didn’t know a word of English, not even a yes or a no. When I came out of there after six years, I had almost forgotten my own language. We were little kids; we didn’t even know we were Indians then. We watched so many cowboy and Indian movies and we always rooted for the guys with the ten-gallon hats. It explains to some extent the dysfunctional nature of some of our people. When you are taken away from your parents at a young stage, removed from a closely knit family and placed in a completely alien atmosphere, you lose an important sense of parental guidance. I see that happening today and it is like a sickness passed from one generation to the next. Very few people recognize that. It explains the depression you see in the faces of the people, the alcoholism, and now the drugs.”

Gosnell doesn’t hold a grudge against a schooling system that wrenched him from his family because it became one of the defining moments of his life. He did, after all, learn to read and write the English language and counted among his classmates a generation of men who would one day become leaders in the struggle for aboriginal rights.

The friendships he forged then against a common enemy would translate into political support. “Whenever the tribal groups from across the province meet, I greet my friends from those days,” Gosnell says. “It taught me discipline. It put backbone in my spine. I walked away from that and I knew I could stand up to anything.”

He also met his wife Adele there – she had arrived from the Nass on a later steamship – watching her across the strictly segregated playground. In May, 1999 both returned to visit St. Michael’s for a reunion to mark its construction 100 years ago.

Vancouver-based media relations specialist Alex Rose worked closely with the Nisga’a in explaining the controversial 2000 Nisga’a Final Agreement to the public.

Also an author, Rose has written five non-fiction books, one of which is “Spirit Dance at Meziadin,” an insider’s look behind the scenes of the Nisga’a Final Agreement from which the above feature is taken.

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Photographer Gary Fiegehen is also from Vancouver and many of his photos have appeared in publications concerning the Nisga’a and the Nass Valley.