Review: For Nelson

First-hand accounts of horrific childhoods are rare in literature, and compelling: Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography, or A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, the recollections of an English workhouse boy that are so stark one U.K. reviewer said it made Oliver Twist look like a holiday camp.

New from Athabasca University Press is My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell, the memoirs of an Indian Residential schoolboy. Arthur Bear Chief’s story is so raw it would have gone unpublished 30 years ago. Bear Chief notes with irony the Anglican Church didn’t give him much of an education at the Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen, Alta. His English skills were so poor that later, as a public servant, he had an ex-wife ghostwrite his government reports. The result in My Decade at Old Sun is a plain and riveting narrative stripped of adjectives and ornamental prose. It is vivid and powerful.

Bear Chief writes in memory of his best friend, Nelson Wolf Leg. He recalls the two little boys cowering in the dark awaiting a summons from the faculty pedophile. “We made a promise to each other to never say anything about what happened to anyone, not even our parents. We also made a pact that if one of us died, the other would come forward and talk about our abuse. I can still vividly remember Nelson, both of us lying in my bed crying and holding onto each other for protection, and scared out of our wits,” writes Bear Chief; “I was younger than Nelson, and I can remember him wiping the tears from my face and saying, ‘Keep quiet.’”

Bear Chief went to Residential School at age 7, in 1949. Eight brothers and sisters were taken, too. He remembers when they came for his older brother: “Francis came running into the house, jumped up into the attic opening and crawled inside,” he writes. “Not long after that, three white men and an RCMP officer came running in. They dragged my brother down as he was screaming and kicking. They dragged him out, and my parents could not do anything. That was a preview of what was in store for me.”

My Decade at Old Sun recounts a boy’s aching loneliness, occasional joy – chocolate pudding was served once a week – and the reign of sadism. One gym teacher liked to rifle a soccer ball at the children’s heads. Another supervisor enjoyed terrifying students by waving his service revolver in class. The faculty kept a directory and checked off the name of any student heard to speak the Blackfoot dialect. A check meant weekly beatings. “We used to call Sundays ‘payday’,” writes Bear Chief.

“There were times when I would go out to the field by myself and sit there calling for my mother,” he writes; “My life is like a cocoon that never really hatched.”

Bear Chief recalls failed marriages and a battle with alcoholism, his letter of apology from the Anglican Church and a $105,000 out-of-court settlement. “My lawyers took 30 percent,” he said. The government charged GST.

Unlike other crime victims, Bear Chief and thousands of fellow Residential School students never had the chance to face their tormentors in court. Nobody named names, nobody went to jail. “Even now I cannot begin to comprehend a system that was so completely out of whack and so full of individuals who were just there to satisfy their cruelty and lust, or understand why they will never be asked to answer for what they did,” he says.

My Decade at Old Sun is an unforgettable memoir. It will make your troubles  seem small.

By Holly Doan

My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell, by Arthur Bear Chief; Athabasca University Press; ISBN 9781-7719-91759; $19.95

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