At St. Germ’s the kids called me “Zhaunagush” because I could speak and read English. Most of them had been pulled from the deep North and knew only Ojibway. Speaking a word in that language could get you beaten or banished to the box in the basement the older ones had come to call the Iron Sister. There was no tolerance for Indian talk. On the second day I was there, a boy named Curtis White Fox had his mouth washed out with lye soap for speaking Ojibway. He choked on it and died right there in the classroom. He was ten. So the kids whispered to each other. They learned to speak without moving their lips, an odd ventriloquism that allowed them to keep their talk alive. They’d bend their heads close together as they mopped the halls or mucked out the barn stalls and speak Ojibway. I learned that ventriloquism eventually, but in the beginning they saw me as an outsider.

I didn’t mind that. I was sore inside. The tearing away of the bush and my people was like ripped flesh in my belly. Every time I moved or was forced to speak, it roared its incredible pain. And so I took to isolation. I wasn’t a large boy and I could disappear easily. I learned that I could draw the boundaries of my physical self inward, collapse the space I occupied and become a mote, a speck, an indifferent atom in its own peculiar orbit. Maybe it was the hurt itself that allowed me that odd grace. Maybe it was the memory of my grandmother’s frozen arms around me or that last glimpse of my parents disappearing into the portage at Gods Lake. I don’t know. But in my chrysalis of silence I turned to Zhaunagush books and language, finding in them a path beyond the astringent smell of the school. The nuns and the priests took me for studious and encouraged me to vanish even further into my self-imposed exile. It was easy.

You couldn’t be a kid under that regime. There was no room for any kind of creativity to flourish. Instead, to survive, we mimicked the cloister walk of the nuns, a relentless mute march from prayer to chapel to physical labour.

Arden Little Light was a skinny Oji-Cree kid with a bad limp from where a trap had sprung closed on his ankle. His family lived so far back in the bush they couldn’t get him out to a hospital. So the break in his bone had healed all ragged and calcified, leaving a ring beneath his skin like the bumps on a sturgeon’s back. He always had a runny nose and he wiped it with the sleeves of his shirts. The nuns tried to get him to use a hankie, but he was a bush kid and he couldn’t break the habit. They tied his arms behind his back. He sat in the classroom with snot running down his face. When he cried and made a goopy pool on the floor, they stood him up and strapped him and sat him back down after scraping at his nose with a coarse rag. As we bent our heads to our books we could hear him huffing, trying desperately to suck the snot back. But it was a medical condition and there was no relief. They began standing him at the front of the chapel, the classroom, the dining room with his hands wrapped behind him, making us witness the seeping track of the snot that bled down his face and neck into the collar of his shirt. He was six years old. He was from a people who had forged survival out of the bush as hunters, trappers, fishermen. That way of being was tied directly to the power they felt everywhere around them, and he’d been born to that, had learned it like walking. The nuns found him hanging from the rafters of the barn on a cold February morning. He’d wrapped his own hands behind his back with twists of rope before he’d jumped. They buried him in the graveyard that crept up to the edge of the bush. The Indian Yard. That’s what the kids called it. Row on row of unmarked graves. Row on row of four- and five-foot indentations like a finger from Heaven had pressed them down. Dips in the earth. Holes they fell into.

Sheila Jack. They’d brought her all the way from Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island. She was twelve. In the old way of her people, she’d been raised by her grandmother and been taught the traditional protocols of the medicine way. Her grandmother was a shaman, and Sheila would take her place one day. When she arrived at St. Germ’s the kids were in awe of her. She walked into the school quietly, humbly, regally almost. It quieted us. We’d never seen anyone so composed, so assured, so peaceful. Something in her bearing reminded us about where we’d come from. We surrounded her like acolytes and that enraged the nuns. They thought Sheila was thumbing her nose at them and they set out to break her. They made her memorize the catechism and recite endlessly at the front of the classroom. If she made a mistake they struck her with a ruler, a strap or a hand and made her start over. She recited during meals, while she worked, while she walked. She wasn’t allowed to speak to us. Her voice was consigned to the repetition of the texts. They woke her up from sound sleep and made her stand in the dormitory and say the words. When she began to mumble to herself we thought she was still at it. Then we began to notice that her words had no meaning. She’d walk the halls of St. Germ’s muttering incomprehensible phrases and then burst out with a wild laugh, hitting herself with stinging slaps to the face before she returned to her vacant-faced mumbles. She lost the composed grace she’d arrived with. She got wild-eyed. Finally, she wandered away into the bush. The nuns found her three days later, knee deep in a bog, reciting, giggling, reciting again. That’s what she was still doing when the car came and took her away to the crazy house.

Shane Big Canoe. They brought him to St. Germ’s wrapped in ropes. When they untied him, he promptly ran away. I remember standing along the rail of the stairway with a dozen or so others when they brought him back. Two burly men from town had wrestled him into Father Quinney’s office. We heard slaps, the whack of fists on flesh, the sound of wrestling and the crash of furniture. Then silence. When they walked him out past us, Shane’s head was down and he didn’t struggle. He plodded like an old man propped up by the elbows. They led him to the basement and locked him in the Iron Sister for ten days. It was called Contrition.

“I wouldn’t want to be him,” one of the kids whispered.

“No one comes back from there the same. Ever,” said another.

“Perry Whiteduck said it’s in the furthest darkest corner and the rats come at night and try to get you.”

“He’s gone. Right?” a girl asked.

“Yeah. He’s in the Indian Yard.”

“He didn’t come back from his second trip there.”

“He said it was so cold you breathe ice fog.”

Shane Big Canoe was thirteen. His family was Metis from Saskatchewan and he was eight hundred miles from home. When he came out there was no more fight in his eyes. He held his raw-boned hands with their big knuckles in front of him, wringing them. He kept his head down, staring at his shoes. They’d find him at nights in the dormitory, huddled tight against the door where a sliver of light showed at its crack. It was the only place he could sleep. Close to that skiv of light, the glow of it on his face.

St. Germ’s scraped away at us, leaving holes in our beings. I could never understand how the god they proclaimed was watching over us could turn his head away and ignore such cruelty and suffering.