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The life of a residential school survivor

Trigger warning: This article contains graphic details and strong reference to sexual abuse.

STEVE BONSPIEL THE EASTERN DOOR

The first thing you notice about Mi’kmaq elder Nick Huard is his sense of humour. He can laugh about anything.

He’s used it to survive over his 72 years, first in a tough upbringing in Listuguj, growing up in a tent, and later on at the Jonquiere Seminary (which is now a CEGEP), growing up with pedophile priests.

He was six years old when he was sent, along with two other boys, Pete and “ti-Burt,” and only two of them made it out alive.

Nick has been here in Kahnawake for 30 years now, but by the end of this month, he will have to move out of his home. You might know it as the Hawk’s Nest, connected to Kahnawake Pizza and Subs.

With little money, some people in the community have helped him find a place and he secured a storage container for his many collectibles and personal works of art, but it’s leaving the practically condemned space that has been tough to deal with.

For those people who have visited his home, it’s like a museum – carrying so many mementos from all those years as a war correspondant, on film sets, and with every major network. From Vietnam, where he was wounded twice, or Nicaragua, where he still has pain to this day from a major injury, his camouflage helmet from Vietnam and his dad’s rifle from World War II that it sits on are reminders of a colourful and sordid life.

Residential School

It’s rare residential school survivors talk in-depth, publicly about their experience, but the 215 children’s graves found in Kamloops BC changed all that for Huard.

It spurred him to talk, to open up, to hopefully educate the future generations.

Huard was commissioned to make a giant dreamcatcher for Canada’s 150th year of confederation, for truth and reconciliation, which is currently housed at the Confederation Centre in Prince Edward Island.

The project involved children of all ethnicities across the country creating smaller dreamcatchers attached to the one that measured 28 feet, six inches.

When the announcement of the deceased children in unmarked graves came, Huard was beside himself. His dreamcatcher project also had 215 little dreamcatchers from children in Canada.

“I got a shiver down my spine like you wouldn’t believe. I think my heart took a leap too,” he said. “The title of the piece is ‘What Canada Should be.’”

Huard figured he’s owed close to $300,000 with interest for the work of art. He was partially paid for it in the beginning, but when he requested his fee for creating the actual piece of art, he was offered a mere tax receipt.

The Canada Council for the Arts said it would pay to have the dreamcatcher sent to another location to display, but there is nowhere to send it to at the moment, so he’s at a stalemate.

He was ready to share, mostly because he didn’t want to take his story with him, and he wants to tell those who don’t know.

The 215 graves brought very dark thoughts to his mind, but knowing his story would get out there brightened things up a little.

“I wasn’t in school, I was in service,” Huard said, as he recounted words told to him by a judge at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). “I was basically there for free labour.”

When the RCAP was in full swing in the 1990s, Huard was covering the proceedings, doing audio work for the National Film Board (NFB) – mostly sound recording.

“I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They (other kids) learned how to read and write, and I learned how to wash the floors, clean the barn and get (sodomized) twice a week,” he said.

“It was the duty of the Catholic Church to see that I got a Christian education back then, and they didn’t want my grandmother to bring me up. She was speaking the Devil’s language.”

Huard’s parents, Mi’kmaq and Wendat, weren’t getting along and his grandmother, who was Mi’kmaq, tried to hide him under the bed in Listuguj, when authorities came to take him away to the seminary.

A painful memory he had was his mother pointing out where her son was hiding. One month after they took Huard and the two other boys – Pete and ti-Burt – they told them there was a “big sickness” and everybody was dead.

“And they told our parents we died of a great sickness as well. My father tried to recuperate my body. I was officially dead. There was even a death certificate, which was lost in the church fire archives in Mariah,” said Huard. “Very convenient.”

With only three Native children at the seminary, being used for free labour and not offered any type of formal education, Huard was alone.

There were no groups of kids to deflect the pain onto, just him and two other choices for the abusive, relentless and sadistic priests.

The seminary, according to Huard, used to sell little pictures of Asian kids to get money for the mission.

“So they would contract us out to farmers to pick the potatoes, or the rocks that came up in the spring, and we would get 25 cents for the weekend,” he said.

While the children were off seminary grounds, they had implicit instructions not to say anything or talk to anyone.

When they came back to the seminary, that quarter they made working out in the elements, was also taken from them.

“When we went back, we had to donate for the missions in China,” he said.

The irony was, fast-forward to 1972, when Huard was a war correspondent in Vietnam, nuns were selling photos of Native kids to make more money off the backs of Indigenous youth, for their missions in Canada.

During his time there, the priests regularly sexually abused all three of them, and in order to survive, there was a large amount of disconnect from what was happening to them.

One of the trio of boys, tiBurt, didn’t make it out alive.

Early on when the boys were six, he explained: “The priest tried to make me give him a blowjob, but I puked in his pants,” said Huard. “Then they tried with Pete and he bit him. So they pulled out his teeth, so he would not bite again. He was lucky because those were his baby teeth.

“They tied him to a tree post outside and I can still hear him gurgling blood.”

Fearful for his life, Huard stopped fighting back.

“I didn’t want them to pull out my teeth, and I didn’t want to get killed,” he said. “What do you do? You can’t fight. You just bide your time and hopefully, you’ll have a chance to fight one day.”

With both boys somewhat subdued, Huard said they killed ti-Burt.

“I think they beat ti-Burt to death to keep us in check,” he said. When Nick and Pete were forced to dig a hole, which the priest lied and said was to plant trees, they knew the truth. And then there were two.

Running away

When Huard turned 12, he realized if he was going to get out of the hell he was living in, he would have to hatch a plan and flee.

Living side-by-side with non-Native kids in a different building, the future priests of the province and country, also meant experiencing the racial divide of the day, and everything that comes with it.

One day, Huard climbed the fence to watch the white kids’ TV – a privilege denied to him the entire time. It changed his life. Looking back at him was Kahnawake’s own wrestling legend Billy Two Rivers. He had proof Native people still existed, in spite of the lies the priests told.

“I was determined, I was going home,” he said, but he didn’t make it far. “The cops picked me up and brought me back and I remember the priests saying ‘he’s got a very fertile imagination,’ because I told the cops what they were doing to us.”

Back then, Huard, said, “people were really brainwashed by Christianity,” so pitting the word of a pre-teen against that of a venerable priest, a religious institution, was basically blasphemy.

To teach him a lesson, the priests and clergy beat Huard so badly he ended up, literally, on the infirmary floor.

When Huard was sent for medical help, a veterinarian instead of a nurse or doctor tended to him.

He was left to sleep on the cold floor as he recovered, in spite of the three cots nearby. “Beds were for the white kids,” he said.

A full recovery filled with love and support did not exist. He had to heal on his own. Alone and scared. Angry, no doubt, but helpless to change things while his wounds healed.

“Once I got better, I took a table knife and a blanket and I headed through the bush.” It was his second and final escape attempt.

Huard stayed close to the road, but hid. He did that for a week before finally making it to Montreal by train, hitching a ride for the journey “hobo-style,” he said, because, of course, he had no money. Within a day, he was off to New York City in the same fashion.

He survived by remembering what he learned from his grandmother – what to pick to eat, how to stay warm. It was better than the scraps given to the boys at the seminary – with Huard’s highlight being a ketchup sandwich and a glass of Tang.

The pigs at the Seminary, he said, ate better than the Native children.

His chance encounter with Two Rivers on TV inspired him to run away, and it also led him to Kahnawake. He knew he would be safe here.

War journalist

For someone who never had any type of formal schooling, Huard had a hell of a career, learning on the job.

Working for CBC, APTN, the NFB, CBS, and just about every major broadcaster, he was sent all over the world to work.

Some highlights of his long career, include: Staying warm in a tent for a shoot up in the Arctic at minus-84 (one degree off the Canadian record); coming to know and appreciate the talents and charisma of Pierce Brosnan on the set of Grey Owl; and running away from a mob during the Stanley Cup playoffs one year, with someone yelling “get that camera!”

To record the things that have happened to him, one would need to write a few books.

He later became a teacher of all things film and television-related, culminating with his current position as elder-in-residence with the Universite de Montreal.

His career is remarkable no matter how you look at it, but knowing his backstory, of coming out of the seminary and accomplishing everything he has with so little, is simply astounding.

One day, while repelling out of a helicopter in Nicaragua in 1983, Huard suddenly realized the rope wouldn’t reach the ground – it was 20 feet too short. There was no time. He jumped anyway, equipment in tow.

“The Sandinistas were firing at us so we had to get up and run,” he remembered.

As a result of the fall, he broke his collarbone in five pieces, suffered a broken rib and sprained ankle – pain he dealt with for many years after, especially after a botched second operation on his leg.

“We ran, man, we ran. We jettisoned the equipment and we just ran with the tape,” he said.

One time in Vietnam, Huard caught shrapnel on his face from a grenade. It hit so hard and his face bled so much they thought he was dead.

“I woke up and they were closing the body bag,” he said. “I had no pulse. I had lost so much blood. Once I was awake, they took me to a MASH unit and fixed me up very good.”

To this day, his nostril kind of collapses when he breathes as a result of the grenade blast.

Later on in life, he searched for the priests who abused him, but to no avail. It was like they disappeared. They just didn’t exist, at least on paper.

Oftentimes abusive priests are sent to other schools or seminaries to keep them within the church, but away from their victims. Huard figures this is what happened.

But he was glad, later on in life, that he didn’t meet up with them as a man.

“The Creator was watching out for me,” he said. “If I had found them, I would be in jail, but instead, I’m here to tell my story.”

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