“If I give up, those Sisters will win”

Outside the now-derelict school building, a memorial remember what students endured. Photo: Chris Benjamin

As told to Chris Benjamin by Irene Bernadette Eisenhower.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains strong language and references to sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to survivors.

More than a year ago a librarian contacted me saying a reader of my book, Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School, wanted to share her own story of surviving Nova Scotia’s residential school, which operated from 1930 until 1967. I’ve met with Bernadette several times since to listen and occasionally ask a question. Her story is shocking; her survival and courage inspiring. Below are her words, edited for length and chronology.

At the end of the summer of 1961, when I was five, my mother was doing our laundry and packing. She was crying. She said, “You’re going to be put in this school where they’re going to feed you.” 

My brothers and sister and I planned to run and hide in the woods. But when they came, we panicked and ran off in different directions. They grabbed us and took us onto the bus. 

At the school, the Sisters and priests made us stand in line, girls on one side, boys on the other. 

Sister Lilberta lectured us. 

“Welcome. If any of you try to run away you will be severely disciplined. If we see you trying to talk to a cousin or brother on the boy’s side, you will be disciplined. 

“If you try to speak your own language, you will be disciplined. Your language is gibberish.

“You are here to be civilized. You are savages. Monkeys are smarter than you people. 

“Even though you will be educated here, don’t think you’re going to be better than white people. We are the ones in power. 

“You are here because your parents are uneducated alcoholics and can’t afford to feed you. You’re going to have your meals and we’re going to clothe you and shelter your.”

They gave us a taste of what we were in for. They made us put our hands out and strapped them. 

We were marched into the school. I wanted to look back at my brothers but I couldn’t.

An older girl was made to give me a bath. She scrubbed me with this four-inch brush with thick bristles. 

I said, “That hurts, stop it!” 

She said, “Sister told me I have to do it.” 

I bit her. 

A Sister came in and said, “We can’t tell if you people are clean or not. Your skin is so dark.” 

We went into the other room where all the sinks were, older girls on one side and younger girls on the other, no clothes on. We all got another strapping, ten times on each hand. 

They checked our heads for lice. Someone put a bowl over my head and cut the hair around it. 

At supper was the first time I had beets. I put one in my mouth and felt sick. I threw up in my plate. 

The Sister came over and grabbed me by my ear and pulled me so I was a few feet off the chair. She said, “You ungrateful little savage. Eat that.” 

I tried to eat it again, even with the vomit. I threw up again. She made me apologize to the cook and gave me 10 strappings on the hand. 

Years of Abuse

You could be as good as gold and you still get a strapping or your ears pulled or your nose pulled. My fingertips started to get bruised and bleeding and had pus and were covered in sores.

There was this other girl who knew how to speak Mi’kmaw very well. She said, “We shouldn’t forget our language.” She said some words to me.

The Sister caught us and took us into the bathroom, strapped us and stuck a big bar of soap in our mouths. They wanted us to forget our language and anything about our culture. 

We had to say our rosaries and prayers every morning, noon, and night. If you twitched they’d use a long ruler and whack you across the legs or your back.

From the first night I was there, somebody always managed to get their hands underneath my blanket and sexually touch me. I would wrap myself up in the sheets as tight as I could but this did not stop the abuse.

I used to screech. The nuns would come running and ask who screamed. I would tell them it was me and receive the strap. 

There were three teenaged girls who sexually abused me in the bathroom stall during the daytimes. The first one asked me to come in there and I thought she was going to tell me something important. 

She pulled me to have sex with her down below. I didn’t like the smell and I knew it wasn’t right. I bit her.

She punched me in the stomach. I almost lost my breath. 

My older sister found out what was going on and she and a friend went after them. A Sister found out but I wouldn’t tell. I felt ashamed, like it was my fault. At no point did the school do anything to stop what was happening. 

Sickness and Escape

Around March 1967 I came down with German measles. There was snow outside. 

I was in the dormitory in my pyjamas by myself. I thought, “If I go outside and put my bare feet in the snow I could get sicker.” That was a way out of the school. 

I snuck down the stairs. I rubbed my feet in the snow as long as I could and got my feet so cold I could stand no more. I didn’t want to die, just to get sick, but I was saying goodbye to the fresh air and snow just in case. 

The following night my temperature went so high, I must have been hallucinating. I saw what looked like a demon, hands folded, fingernails sharp, and looking down at me. 

I ran and I fell and rolled down the stairs, screeching. I blacked out. 

Everybody in school thought I died that night. I was in a coma for a long time. 

When I woke, I was in a Truro hospital room. I’d had a terrible nightmare, again about a terrifying demon, and I was determined to get out of there. I swung myself onto the floor. I tried to get up on my feet and couldn’t. My legs were like jelly. 

I slithered like a snake to the door and pulled it open. The doctors and nurses said, “How did you get out of that bed?” They’d thought I’d never wake up. 

They were so happy and I was afraid of them because they were white. I felt ugly and ashamed. I could hear the voices of the nuns in my head: “You’re no good, ugly, stupid; you’ll never be better than a white person.”

I had to use a wheelchair and progressed to walking with crutches and braces on my leg, and I eventually learned to walk again. I had to learn everything all over again, how to count, the colours, ABCs. 

At this time the federal government started investigating the school. The Sisters called us all in the recreation room and said, “We want you children to put on a good front when these important people come.” 

The government people came around and I whispered to one of the women, “They’re hurting us.” 

I still wanted to run away. This girl whispered to me, “I did the lockup. I left a door open downstairs.” 

I snuck down the hill to the bank of the Shubenacadie River and made a run for it. The water looked so clear. I got halfway down the riverbank and started sinking in the mud. It was like quicksand. 

A lot of students tried to run away from that school, God bless their souls; they tried to swim across there too. I could have been one of the victims in that river. But something told me, “Don’t panic. Just roll.”

I got down and reached for a branch sticking out from up the riverbank. I dug in with my fingernails. It hurt like hell and it was cold. 

I pulled myself up and said, “Thank you God.” I was covered with muck but I was free.  

I went to a house and convinced the woman there to drive me to the edge of the reserve, where I had a friend I used to play with. She let me spend the night. 

When I went home to tell my mother I ran away from school, she said, “You got to go back.” 

But the next day I heard the school was closing down.

Teen Years

The sexual abuse left me feeling ashamed, guilty and confused. I had nightmares for 30 years. 

I first discovered alcohol in my mother’s house. Pills and alcohol made me forget and helped me sleep. 

My mother didn’t want me or my older sister around at all, because Mum was with this younger man and we were growing into young women. She started putting me into foster homes. I was about 14, in Mount Uniacke on a farmhouse. There was an older boy there who tried to sexually abuse me. 

I took some Aspirin and wine and ran into the woods. When they found me I threatened to kill myself and they put me in the NS [psychiatric hospital] for 14 months. 

They wanted to do some electric-shock treatments to make me forget the school and stop my nightmares. I said no way. 

I went home when I was 15. Then I was being abused by my stepfather, my mother, my brothers. I didn’t feel safe, especially when my parents had parties. Drunken old men would try to get at me. Many times I had to sleep in the field or under the steps to avoid them, and I was terrified of the dark from the Shubenacadie school. 

I went to Halifax and stayed at the [Mi’kmaw Friendship] Centre and tried to go to school. I had my first job at a restaurant on Bayers Road as a dishwasher. 

It was hard working with non-natives. Sometimes I would put powder on my face to try and make myself look white.  

Marriage and Afterward

I met my husband of 28 years—another abusive man—at the old Misty Moon. We had two baby girls and a baby boy. 

I told my husband about the Shubenacadie school. I was about five months pregnant. I woke up one night on top of him, twisting his nose around. I’d dreamt a Sister was twisting my nose and I was fighting back. 

He threw me off of him, said, “What the fuck are you doing, you bitch?” 

When I opened up to him he used it against me, made me feel more ashamed of myself, told me I must have enjoyed the abuse and called me a stupid squaw. 

My children heard him. I said, “Don’t you listen to him. You’re worthy. Don’t feel ashamed.” 

I finally opened up to a doctor and told her about my history. She wanted me to put my babies in a home until I got better. I refused. 

But seeing the doctor was giving me confidence. I’d experienced so much abuse I thought it was normal. She told me to get away from my husband. 

One day I came home and told him, “Get the hell get out. I don’t want you in my life. I need to get better.”

He was having an affair for five years. I was working, trying to take care of my children. He got me fired from a couple jobs. He wanted me to depend on him. 

When I finally left he still didn’t leave me alone. I was in the middle of the process of getting a residential-school settlement from the federal government. I think that’s why he was trying to hang on to me. 

He died of cancer in 2002. I was glad but I also drank a lot before I realized I couldn’t go down that road again. 

I prayed. It released the hate and anger and helped me get better. Nowadays people are trying to find their own ways of praying. I light candles. When I’ve gone to church I look at the priests and say, “You phonies.” 

The other thing that turned my life around is my work looking after people. I took courses and worked in long-term care in Dartmouth, then at Victoria Hall on Gottingen Street for three years and afterward at Shannex for three years. 

It’s a good feeling when women and men you’re taking care of thank you and tell you how good and kind you are. The appreciation and love, that’s helping me to have more self-respect. 

It was harder when I was caring for nuns. When they first sent me over to the Motherhouse in Bedford I said, “Are you kidding me?” One of the people in care was a Sister who had been at the school while I was there. I prayed: “Let me be kind to these people.” 

My first client was this Sister. When I walked into the room she said, “Evil just came to the door.” 

I said, “Do you want me to pray with you?”

She had a little dementia. I had to go along with it. I said some prayers with her and I said, “How can I help you?”

I have taken care of several Sisters and some priests as well. I would look at them and think of my brothers. I wanted to call them phonies and dirty pigs. But you can’t. Just like I don’t want to be called a savage or squaw. 

I do private care now, looking after a man who can’t walk, talk, or feed himself. That reminds me of the helplessness I felt when I was in the Shubenacadie school. It’s a healing process for me. 

I’ve talked to my children about my experiences at the school. If I was mean to them in any way they understand and forgive. We have a good relationship. I don’t feel ugly or ashamed of myself anymore. 

There are times I want to give up my job, go back to drinking. But if I give up, those Sisters will win. They said we were no good, we’d never be anybody. I know I’m somebody.    

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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