Between 1966 and 1968 Shirley lived in the International Grenfell Association Dormitory while attending Yale School in North West River, Labrador. In November of 1968 she ran away from the Residential School and ended up at home in Rigolet. In other years she was billeted with relatives in Cartwright and Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I guess all in all, for some pieces I think that I got some good from it. But I think I missed out on important things in my life, too. One thing is parenting of a teenager. I remember with my daughter when she turned thirteen, I remember we were driving around in the car and I looked at her and I thought, ‘How do I do this? How do I be her parent? How do I be her mother?’”
While Shirley Flowers is presently the coordinator of the Nunatsiavut Government’s Residential Schools Healing Project, she has also worked as a healing group facilitator within the Labrador Correctional Centre, a transition house counselor, and a director of addictions treatment programs. Because Shirley is also a Residential School Survivor, she is able to share her life’s struggles and experiences with others, and uses the strengths and skills she has developed through her own healing journey to support fellow Survivors. For Shirley, the path to healing includes celebrating her connection to the land and participating in traditional activities, making art, and seeking the guidance and support of Elders, traditional healers and role models. Shirley hopes that by sharing her experiences, she will help bring recognition for Survivors from Labrador. “I hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will hear our stories and include us in their gathering of stories and experiences.”
Going to the Dorm
by Shirley M. Flowers
My mother sits by the window crying
Her heart is breaking
It’s the same memory every fall
The plane has taken her children away
They are gone for all winter
It’s time for them to go to school
School is ninety miles away
We will not see them again for ten months
In the spring my brothers and sisters return
The plane flies overhead
My mother is running and crying
She’s crippled but she can run today
I hide behind my mother’s dress
My brothers and sisters
Soon it will be my turn to go
When I turn twelve or thirteen
I have to leave too
I’m scared and excited at the same time
I’m venturing out into a new world
I’m living in a room full of strangers
Some are kind, some are cruel
I’m constantly homesick and I cry all the time
My heart is breaking
I want to be home
I see someone who might help me
I walk up to his car and say
“Can you send me home please
I’m lonesome and it’s making me sick “
That person doesn’t answer
He just looks at me and drives away
leaving me crying, standing in a cloud of dust
Next thing I know I’m being told I’m a trouble maker
The principal of our school
Has been advised that I want to go home
I’m told that what I’m saying and feeling
is upsetting others
And causing problems for the people
who run the place
And there’s no way I can go home
All hope is lost
I just have to make it through this year
My God, how can people do this?
How can they own my life?
I feel like I must be in a prison
I can’t get away
I can’t see my parents
My heart is breaking
I hate it here
Sometimes we have to fight for food
We have to work hard to look after the place
I can’t wait to get out of here
Spring comes, I can go home soon
I will never come back
I do though, one more time
This time I run away
No one can make me stay here
Now when I look at my teenage daughter
I realize some of what I lost
How do I be a mother to her
I wasn’t with my mother when I was her age
My heart breaks
But this time all is not lost
No one owns my life
I am free
And this freedom I will share with her.
I left home when I was thirteen, so it was 1966. I went to the Dorm that year and stayed that year. Then I went with my sister to Newfoundland and I came back to the Dorm again, but I ran away the second time I went.
I don’t remember the first day of school. I do remember getting to the community though and going into the Dorm. It was pretty scary and lonely. I think I was the first girl to get there so I was the only girl in the Dorm. I remember going into the building and there’s like bunk beds in all the big rooms. There were about fourteen bunk beds in one room and fourteen in another and I was the only person there. So it was pretty echo-y and pretty spooky.
For the first few weeks I guess I was pretty lonely. I was really homesick. It made my physically sick, feeling nauseous and unsettled, I guess. I did ask someone if I could go home, someone in authority there, someone at the Mission and they didn’t even speak to me. They just drove away and left me there.
Later on, I don’t know if it was that day or the next day, I was called up in front of the principal at the time and was pretty well told to give it up. I was causing problems and I’m not going to go home anyway so I had to stay put. So I just gave up.
I remember when we first got there that somebody came in and gave us a big lecture on something. I guess it was what we could do and what we couldn’t do, what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. I don’t remember the specifics of it but I remember that person saying they wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense.
I’m from Rigolet. My brother was there. My brother came with me. He had been there the year before. But when we got there we were separated into different rooms, so the only times I saw him was at meal times. And the rest of my family was at home or the older ones were married and living on their own lives elsewhere. I think Residential School was different for different ones. Some people hated it and some people enjoyed it, some of the ones.
We studied lots of History and Geography, Math, English and that type of stuff. I remember, too, feeling when I went there, I went there in Grade 9, and I started doing the work or whatever schoolwork, that I was the equivalent of maybe Grade 6. So I certainly wasn’t prepared for it and I failed. I failed the Grade, in History.
The second year I went to school I got the same mark in History two years; thirty-three. I wasn’t interested in History, I guess, not that History anyway. It was all about the wars over in Europe somewhere. It was not about Inuit culture when I was in the Dorm. But when I was billeted, when I went to school on the Island, in Newfoundland, I had a teacher who made a comment to me. He said, “You Eskimos are nomads.” I said, “Yeah, maybe we are.” And I said, “But I think you’re nomads, too.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, to me a nomad is someone who travels around and moves their home around all over the place with the seasons, or whatever. I think Newfoundlanders keep coming to Labrador to catch all our fish and go back in the winter.”
I was punished for that. That was a bit rebellious, wasn’t it? I’m kind of mouthy sometimes, challenging. But I hear so much of things like that, you know. It’s trying to put [our] people down or something. Sometimes I take it on in not so good a way.
I don’t remember them teaching anything about Labrador. In the younger grades even in our own school at home, Dick and Jane, whoever that was, and the father with his blue suit and red tie and beautiful car. It was meaningless to us.
The good thing was I got to meet lots of people who were similar to me. There was a library there so I stuck my nose in a lot of books whenever I could because we had lots of routine, I guess. Every morning you had to get up and do all the chores and then the meals, clean up, and do whatever chores and then study. We did all the mopping and cleaning, the dishes and making the bread. I made my first bread when I went to the Dorm. Twenty-one loaves. It was a big pan.
I did go home in the summer. Late in June, I remember going home and I guess I was changed, or at least I thought I was changed. At home we call it a ‘big feeling’. I had a big feeling. I thought I was better than the community, better than my parents, so I guess I had a bit of an attitude, because I had been there and I had made it through. My parents were probably kind of used to that type of thing, I think, because I would have been the seventh one who had gone and done that. My older brothers and sisters all went to the Dorm as well, and my mother before me.
I remember myself as a very young child as my brothers and sisters went away, I remember my mother getting ready for them to go. It was pretty intense. It was sad. She cried for days building up to that, knowing that they had to go and I would hear her say things, you know, “they shouldn’t have to be doing this.”
When they left I guess it was kind of an emptiness, this big emptiness and sadness. I would see her look out the window and cry a lot, probably for weeks. I was probably about four then and thinking there was something wrong with this picture. This shouldn’t be happening.
I guess all in all for some pieces I think that I got some good from it. I probably would not be where I am today for pieces of it. But I think I missed out on important things in my life, too.
One thing is parenting of a teenager. I remember with my daughter when she turned thirteen, I remember we were driving around in the car and I looked at her and I thought, “How do I do this? How do I be her parent? How do I be her mother? I haven’t got a clue.”
I think a big thing with me was recognizing that and always placing that somewhere in the forefront of my mind that I’ve got to learn how to be a parent, through trial and error, I guess.
I should only speak from my experience. I think it takes a long time, or it has taken a long time for me to realize the impacts and maybe some people aren’t to that point yet. It took a long time for me to realize how much I was affected even when I wasn’t there by seeing my mother and her sadness and her children gone away. And then when they came back, say when I was four, maybe three or four of them came back, and I’m looking at them, thinking, “who are these people?” They are supposed to be my brothers and sisters but I don’t know them and I’m too shy to speak to them.
Certainly, I feel at home in my community. Even when I visit the community today if I walk out on the beach and look towards the northeast I always want to go home. I want to go home. That’s what it would be like. I want to go home. Home, I guess, is when I sense I feel like I can be a part of the land. Like in Marjorie Flowers’ community at Hopedale, I feel at home there. Even in our trip up to Pangnirtung I kind of felt kind of like home, you know. There’s some comfort. There’s just some connection. I think it’s that connection to the land and to the people, the similarities.
In me, I think maybe that connection is growing in me. I know when I was younger — When I went away one thing when I went to the Dorm I lost my taste for wild food. I couldn’t eat seal for years after that. But I got all that back again now. So I think some of it changed me but I’m able to work at getting a lot of it back. And I am working on getting it back and I want to be proud of it, and I am. I do the things that should come natural to me, whatever it is, whether it’s to go catch fish and smoke it or whether it’s to gather eggs and eat them, or do whatever is in the season to do or spend time out on the land, on the water, and smell it and look at it and see how beautiful it is and write about it and draw it.
I’ve been writing a lot for years now. Probably the “Going to the Dorm” thing may have been one of my first writings. I think I must have used it to express, or it helped me to express how I feel, probably better than speaking. And then I can go back and read and reflect on what I’m saying and build on it and maybe pictures might come out of it, little drawings. I think that has been very connecting and healing for me, as well. I’m getting in touch with my true self then. I don’t have the language and if I did I would be able to express myself much better. That’s what I believe.
I think, and this is me personally, I think that some of the language sort of determines if you’re proper, you know, if you’re a proper Aboriginal. And it’s been said, you know, that this is a direct result of the Residential School system. I’m here. But I don’t think I’m just surviving. I’m an active Survivor and I’m trying to do things to improve my life or to help others, or even to write and draw and let people see and appreciate and be proud of it.
I recently did a Presentation with the youth. It was on Colonization and Inuit history. It was in Rigolet, but it was a Regional Conference so there were youth from all the communities there. When I was going to do my Presentation there was one girl in particular from Rigolet, from my community. She said, “When you’re finished your talk I’m going to put you on the spot. I’m going to ask you a lot of hard questions.” And when I finished she didn’t say anything. So I asked her, “How come you didn’t ask a question? You told me you were going to ask questions.” “I couldn’t even speak”, she said, “How do you ask something about that?”
There was an Elder there, too. Later on she was talking how English was her second language and she said she found it difficult to understand a lot of the Presenters. But she said, “I understood every word you said.” So I told her I thought it was because I was speaking from my heart to her heart she could understand. I started off with a PowerPoint Presentation with one of my writings, a slide of drawings and pictures that I did for each line.
I want to say something about our community and Labrador in particular and our struggles. Although we’re funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and have a project or whatever, we are not recognized by the Federal Government as having Residential Schools. It’s a technicality, I guess, because they are saying no federal dollars went into it. But I would like to somehow challenge that. And I guess to me in some way there has to have been dollars flowing through, which is really a technicality anyway. We are a part of the country now. It’s like I was saying if I adopt a child with FASD [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder] I don’t say “give me the child, don’t give me the FASD”. It’s like we are who we are with what we have and we have that experience. I think on June 11th, 2008 the Prime Minister [made] an apology without recognizing us and I think that’s an insult.
I had this suitcase that was bought for me when I was going to the Dorm to put my stuff in for the winter. All my winter supplies came in that. This is it. I kept it for I don’t know what. Forty-two years ago. That’s what I took all my winter clothing, whatever that I needed, to school in. Somebody asked me what I did for winter clothes. I don’t remember, you know, I don’t remember what I did for that. We didn’t have uniforms. We did bring our own clothes. And I probably just brought two outfits, or something.
I have this photograph by my mother —My mother got me and my brother ready to go, and dressed us up in our finest! I want to say something else after, too, and it’s not about me. It’s about something that happened.
My mother, because of her own experience, she was really careful sending her children away. I guess she knew what could happen or kind of knew what to expect. Well, she made sure we were clean and no lice or nothing like that so that people wouldn’t give us a hard time.
Another thing I think in my mother’s experience, although it was not said, I think I said it to you I believe, my mother was a slave. My mother was taken when she was eleven and I don’t think she got back home until she was eighteen. She wasn’t allowed to go home in the summers; nothing. She had to go work for the Mission, the missionaries.
To me she lost her freedom, she wasn’t free to go she wasn’t free to do things. She had to stay and work for these people. I don’t know if she got paid, or if she did how much it was. I really believe she was a slave for years. She was some kind of a maid for the doctor’s mother. There was a doctor there and his mother. The doctor was the head of the Mission and I think that she was given quite a hard time because this woman was a matriarch, I guess, and very particular. Nothing was ever right. I think she had a hard time — cleaning and polishing and serving and that kind of stuff. The big effect, too, was seeing everybody leave, her brothers and sisters, everybody leave to go home, or most everybody that I know of and she couldn’t for years and years and years.
I’m a person that takes a long time to process things. I would need to think about some of that because I’m sure there’s a lot of things I would like to say, and I do have a lot of these types of discussions, especially with my partner who is from away. We have some very challenging discussions, but very growing, too. You know. I’m hoping and I’m thinking that the experience is hard, but I don’t have to stay there. I don’t have to stay there. I can do things about it and it doesn’t have to take my life. The experience doesn’t have to be all of me.
I had become an alcoholic. I started drinking when I was in the Dorm. It took me a while to get over that. I had my first drink I was thirteen years old. But I haven’t had a drink now for twenty-three years, so I’m doing not bad. It’s a journey. It’s a good journey now. I’m making it a good journey.
I want to write some more, talk to people some more, learn some more, and do that type of stuff. As I write and learn I’m growing and becoming more confident. I still have a lot of moments, I guess, depending on the situation and who is around me where I still lose confidence or I’m afraid of authority figures. But I’m getting beyond that now. I can stand up and say things and do things and be proud of things that I do. I always think sometimes that someday I might write a book or try to get a book put together.
If we don’t speak out and if we don’t say something our children and our grandchildren will never know our truth is what I was trying to say.
There’s sometimes too I think perhaps a lot of Inuit people practice silence and sometimes I think if people are quiet and silent other people may assume that it doesn’t matter or we’re saying it’s okay. And really it’s not. So for me I think I need to learn to speak out and say things so that people will know the truth, or my truth.