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Sister looks back on residential school scars

Remnants of the St. Joseph Residential School in Spanish, Ontario. (Steve Bonspiel, The Eastern Door)

The Canadian government’s residential school policy left lasting and real scars on thousands of Onkwehón:we people and their family for decades, due to abusive school practice over the 120-plus years the policy was in place.

For Tessie Montour, 80, just the sight of the two words makes her blood boil.

“When I read The Eastern Door and I see residential school, everything comes back up because nothing was ever told or fixed,” said Montour, whose brother and sister were sent away to school and were changed forever.

Montour spoke with The Eastern Door this week, as she wanted the abuse her siblings experienced to be moved out of the shadows and told, so people know what happened.

Frank Jarvis and Mary Montour’s journey to residential school was born in poverty and tragedy during the late 1930s.

Mary Jane Armstrong and Louie Montour were married with five children trying to feed and clothe the couple’s growing family during the depression in Kahnawake. When pregnant with a sixth, tragedy struck.

“She (Mary Jane) had five children and she was pregnant with me, and her husband passed away in December,” said Tessie. “I was born in April.”

Tessie explained that her father died of pneumonia that he caught while cutting wood for meager pay to feed his growing family.

Her mother, living on $1.50 a week through social assistance, shortly received a visit from the Indian Agent.

“The Indian Agent went to see my mother and said, ‘I’m going to take two of your children, one girl and one boy, and we’re going to send them to Spanish, Ontario. It’s a residential school,’” said Tessie.

“My mother figured she’ll let these two go if she has to. At least they’ll be fed and clothed, with shoes on their feet.”

Her brother Frank and sister Mary left, and their lives, and those in the family were altered forever.

“My brother was five years old when he went to that residential school,” said Tessie. “When he got off that train, there was a man standing there waiting for him.”

Louie and Mary Jane Montour faced tragedy in the midst of trying to raise the couple’s growing family, and Mary was left with few options, little money, and a genocidal policy that left never-healed scars for nearly a century. (Courtesy Tessie Montour)
Louie and Mary Jane Montour faced tragedy in the midst of trying to raise the couple’s growing family, and Mary was left with few options, little money, and a genocidal policy that left never-healed scars for nearly a century. (Courtesy Tessie Montour)

Tessie assumes it was teacher or administrator, who collected Frank, who only spoke Kanien’kéha, and brought him to the school.

This is where, according to Tessie, Frank was assaulted sexually.

“Five years old!” said Tessie, who spoke about her brother returning a very changed boy, having been robbed of his childish innocence while away.

“When my brother got home from the residential school, I can remember, he used to be about this big,” said Tessie gesturing to a height of around four feet tall. “My mother said that is your brother and that is your sister, all in Mohawk.”

Tessie wanted to throw her arms around her brother upon seeing him, but Frank had no interest in showing love. It was a coldness that only grew as he returned to Spanish year after year.

“He wanted no part of us,” said Tessie. “When he got older, he started giving my mother a hard time. The pain that they put him through, he said, ‘what did I do so bad to anger my mother to send me here to be punished?’ He thought he was sent there to be punished. He started hating his mother.”

Tessie said her mother could not believe the horrible stories her son was telling her, and the rift between Frank and his family grew.

“Then he got even more mad and started to drink,” said Tessie. “And when he got drunk, he picked on the whole family.”

Tessie’s brothers and sisters from her mother and father have all passed away. Her mother remarried and had two more children.

Tessie retold the story in a desire to heal, to air out some of her family’s history that she admits has made her “hard.”

“I have to throw this up to save myself, maybe,” said Tessie. “To see how the rest of us were raised in my family, knowing this.”

The memory of her two siblings being taken because her family was struggling is something that haunts the grandmother and great grandmother still.

“For poor people? Because my mother didn’t have the food to feed us? Is this what you do to the poor?” she asked.

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