The tainted legacy of St. Joseph’s Mission

Esther Darlington MacDonald recounts her disquieting memories of Williams Lake's notorious residential school.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Way back in 1962, which in retrospect seems a hundred years ago, the town of Williams Lake lay in the northern tip of the San Jose Valley in relative lazy isolation.

The sawmill industry was alive and well. Clouds of pinkish wood smoke filled the air from burners in and around the town within a radius of at least 20 or more miles in every direction. The surrounding hills, green and empty of habitation, topped by forests of pine and other trees, embraced the town and the five mile long lake on the town’s perimeter. Beyond the town lay many miles of forest, grazing land, and small lakes.

The numerous ranches in the area were far flung and scarcely neighbours. But on the weekends, Williams Lake became a hub of activity as the rural people came to shop, do business, and treat themselves to meals and drinks at the several hotels. There was a Drive Inn movie theater, the hockey arena, and a hospital located on a bench above the lake. The hospital then was a low, wooden building, painted white with green trim. And there was a medical clinic.

The distances between the town and the ranches were formidable. In the dead of winter, trips to and fro on the dirt roads could be fraught with hazards as ice and snow took hold and maintenance could be intermittent. So it was practical to have rural children live in town through the week or longer.

Native children did not attend the schools in town. They were obliged to attend the nearest residential school. That school near Williams Lake, was St. Joseph’s Mission.

Established in the latter part of the 20th century by the Oblate Order, the Mission had a long history from the region’s earliest years of settlement.

The segregation of school children well up until the late 1960’s in that area of the Cariboo was never questioned. It was just considered a fact of life. The word, segregation, was not used to describe the situation. But people were aware that St. Joseph’s Mission school did not provide an education beyond primary school. The school was staffed at that time, by the sisters of St. Anne. And it is a fair guess to write, that most, if not all, were ignorant of the history of the area and its people, native Indian and non native.

When we arrived in Williams Lake in early spring of 1962, the native population of the area was not only clearly visible, but one could say, they were the dominant residents. Old women in mocassins and scarfed heads, sometimes leaning on a cane, were shooed off the steps of the town’s only ladies ready to wear and gift shop, where they had come to rest and  take a breather from the walk up the steep incline above Mackenzie Avenue.

Drinking in the downtown avenues, particularly around the bank and courthouse, was an experience that out of town visitors from the big cities found nothing short of a culture shock. There were several large reserve communities in the area from Quesnel to 100 Mile House. Most of the children from these native communities were living at St. Joseph’s Residential School.

Older girls from the Mission could be seen on a Saturday afternoon, having a milkshake in the corner cafe at Mackenzie and Borland. And at the Drive Inn movie theatre, the van driven by Father O’Connor, who was director of St. Joseph’s Mission, could be seen driving in, the van crowded with girls in their late teens, some of whom were employed at the Mission as kitchen help. One evening, parked alongside the van, we joshed with Father O’Connor about his van full of “girls”, and he laughed and responded with some good natured remark. It seemed all quite innocent, and perfectly natural.

Father O’Connor was a tall, well built, handsome man. Dark hair, light complexioned, clean shaven. Father was sociable, open, and welcoming when visitors came to the Mission. And soon after our arrival in Williams Lake, we visited St. Joe’s, as it was affectionately called, and spent many a weekend getting to know the kids.

Jack, my ex-husband, entertained them with his magic, and we decided to stage Guys and Dolls with the older kids. I had the Mission carpenter build the sets, and painted them right inside the quarters used by the priests and brothers.

Father Kelly, coming into the rec room and seeing me painting the sets, quipped, “And what are you doing here, desecrating the cloisters?”

Sometimes, I visited the younger children, tots, really, in their recreation area supervised by one of the sisters.  They were so young… so vulnerable.  And appreciated the affection and the story telling. But little hugs and story telling seemed so inadequate. All those little kids. In that great big room, the black robed sister reading at one end.

At one point, we were given a tour of St. Joseph’s Mission. I will never forget the rows of white cots in that long room. The walls painted a weak green color. The only decorative touch, a cross above the wide door frame.  Everything was very clean. Very tidy. Very institutional. Not a vestige of “lived in” about it.

And the long dining room of tables, likewise in rows, the tables covered with oil cloth, the whole atmosphere rather dingy, the corners dark, the walls of concrete painted that sickly green color. And  the washroom with its concrete sink where the children washed and brushed their teeth with baking soda.

I wondered then, how these children, torn from their homes in the pristine wilderness  areas many miles away from their homes and families for months, even years at a time,  coped with the dramatic changes in their lives. From a rural life where hunting and fishing was a way of life, where family members, young and old, lived in the same village for generations too far back to count.

I had visited several reserves, particularly Soda Creek and Sugar Cane, and had made friends of a couple of families there. I was made aware of life on these reserves. Life before the residential schools, and the life after. Alcoholism with all the intendent social ills, was coped with, somehow.  Often, it was the  elder matrons of the bands who served as the pivots around which the fragments of the families revolved. Children who had a home to come home to during the summer months, left the residential school, and enjoyed the freedom to pick berries, help with the fishing on the Fraser River, chop wood, and do the chores required for the cabin type life of the reserves in those days.

“My sons raised horses and sold them to the white man,” one elder woman told me. Wild horse herds provided the means and the work to get them required great skill.

But homes without children –  young children – were mere empty cabins. Homes without heart, mind and soul… And where were the parents of those children? In the bars and partying for days on end.  And were those residential schools, those institutions, empty too, of heart, mind and soul?

Institutions like orphanages and residential schools are not places that foster good memories. The very nature of such institutions defies the qualities that make children feel secure, happy. They never could be homes. They never were.

On a few occasions during our visits, we were invited to have dinners with the priests and brothers in their dining room, separate from the main dining room where the children ate. Above the room, a row of heavily metal screened windows caught my attention. Small children at the screens, watching us eat. Fine meals. Roast chicken, roast beef. The food served in the dining room for the children was quite different. The children watched as we ate. A little unnerving that experience.

On another occasion, we were invited to have coffee with the staff and Oblate brothers in the kitchen, adjacent to the dining room.  We talked about our spiritual journeys, our goals and hopes. The talk was an easy exchange. Once, the subject of the children being taken away from their homes was raised.  I sensed a defensive response. And wondered, was learning to use a flush toilet, learning how to brush your teeth, learning how to read and write, without the love and support, without the language of your people, how could an institution supply those needs so vital to every child?

Years later, the scandals that came out of St. Joseph’s Mission became series of shocks. One  brother was convicted of molesting children, and received a jail sentence. I met another, who had been employed as a “disciplinarian” (yes, that is what they were called), quite by chance on Granville Street in Vancouver. He had become a prostitute, heavily made up to look like a woman. I scarcely recognized him, when he came up to me, and greeted me like a long lost friend.

And, finally, the saddest shock of all. Father O’Connor, now a Bishop of the Diocese, charged with having an affair with a native girl at the Mission, an affair that had resulted in the birth of an infant baby.

St. Joseph’s long history terminated with the complete dismantling of that forbidding grey edifice in the middle of that valley of pastoral beauty. But the memories of the families of that district will take generations to mend. The institution’s history has become a tainted legacy.