When we look at our history as Indigenous people in the country of Canada, there are so many elements to that history that have required of us to be extraordinary resilient. Indian Residential Schools have been an area of much needed profiling and awareness raising, few have spoken of the high rates of children who contracted TB in these schools and subsequently ended up in one of the many TB Hospitals across Canada. It is estimated that there were as many as 8,000 students died for every 100,000 who contracted TB. The hospitals caused an interruption in attachment to family, isolation, and loneliness that have and continue to impact the lives and relationships of the survivors of the TB hospitals. This chapter from Hope, Faith & Empathy opens the door to begin dialogue about TB…this is a story of one man and his unique experience in the TB hospital and it’s impact on his life.
“Now there’s so many of us trying to find our way back to our families. Culture and ceremony, that’s what has kept me alive—even when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alive.”
I wasn’t sure when I had fallen asleep. It had been about all I could do to roll my sweatshirt into a makeshift pillow…and I was out. I had been so exhausted, the kind of exhaustion where every bone in your body aches and no matter how you try, it’s just not possible to keep your eyes open.
My work that week, in an isolated and remote First Nation community, had been immensely gratifying, humbling and intense. It was a week of listening to heart-wrenching stories of trauma—the kinds of stories that made me wonder how the person sharing was even alive, let alone a functioning member of their community. Every time I worked in one of our communities, I was awed by the power of the human spirit as I was privileged to witness powerful breakthroughs of resiliency.
It wasn’t a hard jar as the ferry docked at its next stop, but enough to stir me from my deep sleep. I half opened my eyes, but the sun shining through the window was almost blinding and provided me with a good excuse to close my eyes again. The gentle rocking of the ferry and the warm glow of sun on my face eased me back to sleep.
“Um, excuse me, Miss?” A man’s voice woke me. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or not. I opened my eyes to check it out.
“The ferry is pretty full, so I’m wondering if I can have this seat.” He motioned to the seat that I had my legs curled up on.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I quickly brought my feet and legs down to the floor and used my hand to wipe the seat where they had been.
“Not to worry,” he said as he placed his suitcase under the seat in front of him. It was one of those older style suitcases, no rolling wheels or extending handle. He put a small cooler and thermos by his feet. With his thumb and forefinger he grasped his pants and pulled them up towards his waist as he sat down. “There’s usually lots of empty seats on this ferry. Now that the road has been built, hardly anyone rides it anymore. But me, I like the tranquility of the ride and being out on the ocean.” He reached across his body with his left hand, extending it to me. “Pardon my rudeness, my name is Saul.”
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Saul. My name’s Tilly.”
“Pleasure is all mine, Tilly.”
I smiled. Normally a response like this would give me the eeby jeebies and I would find some excuse to remove myself from further conversation. But there was something about this man that drew me to him instead of repelling me. He had the face of a little boy and a dimple in his chin. His hair was black, with only a few grey wisps around his temple and was all combed back and held in place with a succulent amount of Brylcreem. His red cowboy shirt was unbuttoned at the neck exposing a necklace with a gold cross, and he had a cigarette pack in his chest pocket. His sleeves were rolled up to just below his elbows, revealing hairless arms and a variety of tattoos—not the professional tattoos that are so popular today, but rather the tattoos that are done by a friend or while in jail or serving in the Navy. He wore grey polyester pants and sported freshly polished black cowboy boots.
“Where you from, Tilly?” he asked. I knew what he meant. Not where do I live, but rather, much deeper. That question really means: what community are you from, who is your family, what Nation are you from, who are your people.
“Long version or short version?” I asked him, now feeling fully awake and revitalized from my nap.
“Mmm, well now I’m intrigued. Let’s go with the long version.” He smiled at me and raised his eyebrows. His eyes danced.
“Oh geez, where do I begin?” I turned my body towards him, leaning against the window and began. “I’m mixed heritage.”
“Seems we all mixed heritage these days, Tilly. Not many of us Aboriginal people who are just from one or two Nations or don’t have some white blood somewhere in their family genes. But go on, tell me more about your family.”
“On my Mom’s side, I’m Cree from Saskatchewan. I don’t know what community I’m from because my Mom was removed from her parents at birth and placed in an orphanage. My Dad’s family is of Lakota ancestry and moved to Canada in the mid 1930’s, when my Grandma was little.” As I shared with him, he held my gaze.
“Did your Mom grow up in the orphanage?” he asked.
“No, she was only there until she was three. A friend of my Grandma and Grandpa’s worked at the orphanage and knew my grandparents were considering adoption, so she told them about this little girl with dark curly hair and who she felt they just had to meet. So they took a trip down to the orphanage…not anticipating coming home with this little girl, but they did. They came home with my Mom.”
“Did your grandparents already have kids?”
“Yeah, they had my Aunt who was about five then, but they both came from large farming families and they wanted to have a large family too.”
“And were they Indian?”
“No, they were English and German. She was raised in primarily a German community and was the only Indian.” I wasn’t sure why I was telling him all of this, but it was like I couldn’t stop myself and…it felt good. “My Mom told me once that one of the best days of her life was the day a Chinese family moved to town and opened a restaurant. She was so happy to no longer be the only person who had dark skin in her town.” I turned and looked out the window for a moment. The wild west coast scenery slowly passed before my eyes: the rocks, shaped from the tides for generations, the cedar trees and their boughs so thick I couldn’t see past the forest entrance. I wondered what lived in there…beyond what we knew. We methodically rolled up and down as the small, passenger-only ferry cut through the waves.
I turned back to him. “You know, Saul, I have no idea why I’m telling you all this.”
He smiled and tipped his head towards me. “Yeah, I know. Everyone tells me I shoulda been a counsellor instead of an accountant. I learned to listen to my Grandpa on the fishing boat, alongside the river and out hunting. There was no option but to listen. Oh yeah, and spending my teen years in the TB hospital surrounded by women, I’m sure that helped too.” He chuckled to himself. “Surrounded by women, yep, that’ll teach any man to be a good listener.”
Happy to have the focus off of myself, I said, “TB hospital, do you mean tuberculosis?”
“Yep,” he responded. “And that story, well, that story requires a cup of coffee.” He leaned forward and picked up his thermos. “I have another mug in my cooler. Would you like a cup? Already doctored up with cream and sugar…well not really cream, evaporated milk, better than cream.”
“Sure, I’d love a coffee.”
He poured a cup and handed it to me, then poured himself a cup. “I have salmon sandwiches too, if you’re hungry. Caught and canned it myself. Would you like one?” he asked.
“No thanks, Saul.”
Again, he reached into the cooler, pulling out a salmon sandwich. As he unwrapped it, he said, “I have to back up a few years before the TB hospital, or it won’t make any sense.”
The smell of salmon wafting between us, he took a bite of his sandwich and sat back a bit in his seat. After he finished chewing, he said, “Late summer days like this always remind me of the first time I rode this ferry.” I noticed his jaw clench and his eyes became a bit narrower. He continued. “My life changed that day.” He turned to me. “I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true, Tilly. When I think of my life, I put it into two categories: Before Residential School and After Residential School. And that first ferry ride, that’s the day that divides the two. That’s when it all changed.” He took another bite of his sandwich, chewed for a bit and had a sip of his coffee. I could tell this story was not one to be rushed. I pulled my knees in a bit closer to my chest and held my coffee cup with both hands. I was content to sip my coffee and wait.
“See that space there between those two small islands?” He pointed out the window. “That’s where my Grandpa’s boat was that morning. He was out on the bow and waved as we passed. He stayed out there on the bow watching us. I’m not sure how long he stood there. That was the last time I saw him, alive anyways. I can still see him standing there, Tilly, as if it was yesterday.”
“What us kids didn’t know when we got on the ferry, and what our parents didn’t know as they said goodbye to us that morning was that when we reached Vancouver, all five of us would be sent to different schools.” He took another sip of his coffee. “You know, that morning as we stood waiting for the ferry, well, that was the last time that my whole family was ever together.” His eyes filled and he was quiet again. It was like he was reliving those last moments on the ferry dock.
“That was forty-six years ago, Tilly,” he said, in a strained voice. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder how my life, how all our lives would be different if we hadn’t had to get on that ferry. But I can’t think of it for long—makes me crazy with rage. And that don’t do anyone any good. So I focus on what I can change. Me, my attitude, my actions…that’s about all I have control over.”
His honesty moved me. My eyes stung, salty tears invading them. I clenched my teeth together to try and push the tears away, but slowly they rolled down my face.
“Forty-six years…an awful long time to not be together as a family.” He cleared his throat and used the back of his hand to wipe the tears from his eyes. He continued. “Sure, I see some of my brothers and sisters every now and then. A few of them have moved back home to the reserve, but most of them, they live in the city. I’m not sure what they’d do if they came back home. I’m not even sure they’d call this home anymore. They’ve all created their own sense of community there in the city and it works for them.” He crossed his right leg over his left, looking down as he folded the wax paper that had previously held his sandwich. Flip by flip the wax paper was folded into smaller squares. I waited.
“People are just starting to talk about those schools, and all the horrible things that happened there.” He looked at me and then past me out the window. He told me how in his language the word for “child” has many meanings and that one of them is “purpose for living.” “You can imagine then, Tilly, what happens to a community if all the purposes for living are taken away one day. I think that the most painful part of those schools is what they did to my family.” Saul went on to tell me how he had a whole new perspective on the impacts of Residential Schools when he had his own children and again when he became a grandparent.
“I guess in some ways, Tilly, I was lucky. I didn’t go to Residential School until I was ten, so I had a lot of time with my Grandpa and my Dad. They taught me of our ways, our ceremonies, our songs, how to navigate and fish these waters.” He nodded his head towards the window. “My Mom, well, she was…there really aren’t any words in English that describe her. She was my everything. She was the most beautiful woman. And smart, holy, was she smart! But she was never the same after we were sent to school. Like the happiness in her heart died, but she kept on living.”
He reached into his cooler and pulled out a Tupperware container. He opened the lid and handed the container to me. Homemade cookies. “You gotta have one. They are my wife’s secret recipe.”
I helped myself and took a bite. It was chewy and chocolate. “Delicious.”
“I know, eh? So where was I? Oh yeah, like I could forget.” He smiled at me. “Family. You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.” He chuckled. “Therein lies the problem, Tilly. I think the government set up those schools ‘cuz they were scared of us and our family structures—how powerful we were. And how powerful we still are, Tilly. That’s what we gotta focus on.”
“Mmm,” I agreed.
We were both quiet, his sharing made me think of my Mom’s birth family. So many unanswered questions, just one of them being how, or if, Residential Schools had impacted them. My Mom had been trying to find her birth family for over ten years. During one of her many calls to Social Services in Regina, the Social Worker indicated she had my Mom’s birth Father’s Status Number and name of the Band he was registered with. Since then, she had met road block after road block. I admired so many things about my Mom, and one of them was her tenacity. I knew that one day she would find them. Until then, all I could do was support her, listen and be empathic to the inner turmoil and immense sense of loss she experienced as a result of not knowing her birth family. I was reminded of this turmoil a few weeks before when we were at the Kamloops Pow Wow and she turned to me and said, “You know Tilly, I could be sitting beside my cousin or maybe even my sister and not even know it.” That comment had run through my mind so many times over the past weeks. I felt helpless in easing her pain, her loss and her sense of not knowing where and who she belonged with.
It was like Saul was reading my mind. “Now there’s so many of us trying to find our way back to our families. Culture and ceremony, that’s what has kept me alive—even when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alive.”
Again, we sat quietly for a while, each processing in our own unique way. It was Saul who spoke first. “I guess lots of people would consider me lucky having only spent three years at that school.”
“What do you mean, you spent three years away from home at school? Didn’t you come home for holidays or summer vacation?” I asked.
“I came home for Christmas the first year, but after that the school said it cost too much money to get me home and back again. And my family, well, they just didn’t have the money to bring all of us kids home. I suppose because I was the oldest, maybe they thought out of all the kids I was the one who could handle not coming home. I honestly don’t know, Tilly, but they were three extremely long years.”
“I bet they were, Saul. What happened after the three years?” I asked.
He rubbed his chin with his hand. “I need a smoke before I go into that story, Tilly. You want to come up on deck with me and get some fresh air? You can see so much more up there that you can’t see sitting here.” He stood up. “Come on.” He motioned with his hand for me to get up. So I did and out on the deck we went.
After a few puffs on his cigarette, Saul told me he had contracted tuberculosis near the end of his third year at school and had to go to the TB hospital in Vancouver. He shared how lonely it was lying in a hospital bed day after day. “Lots of people ask me if I got bored. Sure, at times I did, but it wasn’t the boredom that haunted me, it was how alone I was. And how much I missed my family.”
He went on to tell me he would pass the time by counting the tiles in the panelling on the roof or the number of intersecting corners in the room or how he figured out how many beds were in the hospital. Saul shared how one day he had asked a nurse if she knew how many beds were in the hospital. She didn’t know and was quite shocked that he did. Asking him how he knew, he told her how he had figured it out.
The nurse, Ruth, took a special liking to Saul and spent many hours after her shifts with him. She would bring in her son’s math and calculus textbooks and Saul would devour them. His natural gift with numbers was evident. The content of the textbooks were easy for him to understand and the problems seemed even easier for him to solve. He told me how those books and problems helped him pass the days, weeks and months.
As Saul got better and was able to get up and about, Ruth convinced him to study for the grade twelve exams. She organized for him to go to her son’s high school and write them. When he was eighteen, Saul graduated from high school without having ever attended a day.
“That nurse, Ruth, she saw my gift—my gift of being able to sort through numbers and have them make sense. She’s the reason I am an accountant today. Other than my family, she was the first person who ever believed in me, challenged me and supported me. My wife and me, we named our oldest daughter after her. Ruth.”
Before I knew it we were docking in Prince Rupert, and it was time for Saul and me to say goodbye. The ride had taken just over three hours, but felt like only moments and yet also a lifetime. We gathered up our belongings and exited the ferry, walked along the dock and up the stairs to the road.
“My daughter’s pick’n me up and we’re heading over to a gathering at the Friendship Centre. Wanna join us, Tilly?”
“I’d love to, Saul, but I have to get to the airport to get my flight home. So I guess we need to say goodbye,” I said.
“Let’s say ‘see ya’, since there’s no such word as goodbye in our language. Way too final.” He smiled at me. “Sure am glad I decided to take the ferry today. Wouldn’t have met you if I’d taken the sea plane.” Looking at his feet and suddenly seeming weighed down, he said, “I don’t usually talk about all that stuff, Tilly. It’s in the past and that’s usually where I like it to stay. But today, today it actually felt good to talk. Well, maybe good isn’t the right word.” He looked up from his feet and smiled at me. “It was, it was healing to talk about them.” He stepped forward and hugged me.
“You take good care of yourself, Tilly. Help your Mom. Keep after her to look for her family. One day you’ll find them. I really believe that.” A honk of a car horn startled both of us.
“Well, there’s my ride. Look forward to our paths cross’n again one day, Tilly.” With that he squeezed my cheek, picked up his cooler and suitcase and headed towards the car.
I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started to make my way out to the airport, hoping to have time to give my Mom a call before my flight home to Victoria.