St. Jerome’s was hell on earth. We were marched everywhere. In the mornings, after the priests had walked through the dorms ringing cowbells to scare us awake, we were marched to the latrines. We stood in lines waiting our turn at the toilets—a dozen of them for a hundred and twenty boys. Some of us soiled our pants during the wait, because we were strapped if we left our beds at night. We had half an hour to wash, make our beds and prepare ourselves for the march to chapel. There we sat dully in our seats while Father Quinney said a mass in Latin. At the end he pronounced the greatness of the Catholic god.

“We brought you here to save you from your heathen ways, to bring you to the light of the salvation of the one true God. What you learn here will raise you up, make you worthy, cleanse your body and purify your spirit.”

When he was satisfied that the message had been pounded into us, we were marched to the dining room for breakfast. The boys and the girls sat on opposite sides of the room. We stood behind our chairs until everyone had their bowl of lumpy, tasteless porridge, slice of dry toast and watery glass of powdered milk. Then one of the priests would say grace, and we would sit and eat in silence. Not one of us could resist risking a beating by sneaking a peek at the nuns and priests at their table, eating their eggs, bacon or sausage. The smell of it would waft over us while we choked down our gruel then sat with our hands at our sides until they were finished eating and we were marched to our work details.

They called it a school, but it was never that. Most of our days were spent in labour. Even the youngest of us had to work. The girls were kept busy in the kitchen, where they baked bread to be sold in town, or in the sewing rooms, where they made our clothing out of the heavy, scratchy material the school got from the army. The boys mucked out the stalls of the cows and horses, hoed the fields, harvested the vegetables or worked in the carpentry shop, where they built the furniture the priests sold to the people of White River. We spent an hour in the classroom each day to learn the rudimentary arithmetic and English that would enable us to secure manual labour when we “graduated” from the school. There were no grades or examinations. The only test was our ability to endure. Since I could already read and speak English when Father Leboutilier came along, I was given access to books from the town library. But the others had to read from primers and never gained facility with the language. Kids were routinely strapped for giving the wrong answer. In front of the entire class, kids were turned to face the wall, made to pull their pants down to their ankles, bent over with their hands on their knees and whipped raw. Boys and girls alike, except that the girls were allowed to keep their underthings on.

“I seen more little brown nuts than a squirrel,” Lenny Mink said to me once. “And more dark cracks than the river at spring breakup.” He was funny, that Lenny Mink. He died when they were trying to clear a stump from the end of a field and a tractor chain snapped. Lenny’s head was split wide open in front of all those boys. There wasn’t a funeral. There never was for kids who died. His body just disappeared and none of the priests or nuns said anything about him again.

We were like stock. That’s how we were treated. Fed, watered, made to bear our daily burden and secured at night. Anybody who shirked or complained was beaten in front of everyone. That was perhaps the biggest crime: making us complicit through our mute and helpless witness. Sometimes older boys or girls would jump in and try to stop a beating, but they would be pummelled and bloodied and led away, never to be seen again.

We lived under constant threat. If it wasn’t the direct physical threat of beatings, the Iron Sister or vanishing, it was the dire threat of purgatory, hell and the everlasting agony their religion promised for the unclean, the heathen, the unsaved. Those of us who remembered the stories told around our people’s fires trembled in fear at the images of hell, damnation, fire and brimstone.

I was never sent to the Iron Sister, but I saw it once. Father Leboutilier and I were stashing the hockey gear in the school’s basement. I had an armload of equipment as I walked behind him down the stairs. We turned a corner, and there it was. It was shaped like a shoebox, long and flat with a small grille in the door. I could see that it wasn’t high enough to allow even the smallest child to stand, or even kneel. I walked toward it, and the iron was cold to my touch.

“Come away from there, Saul,” the Father said from behind me.

“Why do they have this?” I asked

“They lack charity.”

When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.

The beatings hurt. The threats belittled us. The incessant labour wearied us, made us old before our time. The death, disease and disappearances filled us with fear. But perhaps what terrified us most were the nighttime invasions.

They would start with the swish of slippered feet along the floorboards or the hems of cassocks and gowns as the predators hurried through the dorms. We’d push our faces into our pillows or bury our heads beneath our blankets to drown out the surf of woe that came each night. First, there would be the creak of bed springs as the adults sat. Soft whispers, cajoling, and then the rustling sounds that tattooed themselves onto our brains, the cries of distress, the sound of skin sliding against skin and the low adult growls were born of a hunger none of us could ever understand. Sometimes three or four boys would be visited like that. Sometimes only one. Other times boys would be led from the dorms. Where they went and what happened to them was never spoken of. In the daylight we would look at each other blankly, so that we would not cause any further shame. It was the same for the girls.

“God’s love,” Angelique Lynx Leg whispered one day.

We were shelling peas on opposite sides of a five-gallon pail. She said it so quietly I looked up to see if she was addressing me. She wasn’t. In her hands, a slick green shell she rubbed with the nub of a thumb. “God’s love,” she said again, and then looked at me with eyes as deep and empty as the eyes of a doll. “What Sister brings at night. What Father brings. To bless me. To nourish me.”

I watched as a single tear flowed out of the corner of her eye, burst fully formed against her brown skin. She reached up with one finger. Then she held that finger up in front of her face and looked at it, tasted it with her tongue and then bent to the task of shelling peas again. She was nine years old and all I felt was hollow.