In March 2014, 81-year-old Inez Dieter journeyed to Edmonton for the final national gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). She had been to a number of regional and national events, but knew that this one would be different. This was a last chance to visit with the community that forms around these events, talk with archives staff, and find open hearts to listen to the story of her time in an Indian residential school.
Inez’s story of truth and reconciliation reaches back more than seven decades. One of twelve children born to a Métis mother and First Nations father, Inez was all but orphaned at age four after her parents divorce and her mother’s death.
In 1941, when she was eight, she was sent alone by train to St. Barnabas School in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, where she would experience the trauma and abuse so tragically familiar in life at residential school.
In between her mother’s death and her time at St. Barnabas, young Inez lived at a nearby Roman Catholic school. Even years later, she recalls the striking reactions of other children once they discovered her Indigenous identity. “They treated me all fairly until they found out that I was Indian,” she says, “One of the girls said ‘Dance powwow!’ and I didn’t even know the first thing about this, but of course she was a bigger girl so I pretended to dance and that made her keep quiet.”
On her transition from the Roman Catholic school to Anglican-run St. Barnabas, Inez recalls particularly chilling—and particularly apt—words from a nun, “‘If you ever leave the Catholic church, you’re going to go to hell.’ And her prediction was true, in a way, because when I went to the residential school it was hell.”
Inez’s account of her time in residential school is peppered with the words ‘mean’ and ‘cruel.’ “It was really terrible. We never had enough to eat . . . that’s where we learned to steal. In that residential school, we broke all of the Ten Commandments.”
In 1943, St. Barnabas was destroyed by fire and children were sent back to their reserves. At 9-years-old, Inez Dieter entered a new and unfamiliar world. She was sent to live with her father, whom she had not seen since she was a toddler. Her relatives didn’t know about her. “People came around and they were hugging me and they spoke a different language. They spoke Cree. I didn’t understand.”
Young Inez settled in with her brother Eli and his wife Gladys. She had fun playing with her niece and enjoyed helping build a mud house on the farm. This reprieve was short-lived. Inez was soon sent back to residential school, this time in Prince Albert, where familiar sights and sounds enveloped her again. “I witnessed a lot of strappings, I witnessed a lot of kids crying,” she remembers.
At night, Inez would strain to listen to other children speaking Cree. “I’d try to catch on,” she recalls, “because I knew that was my language.”
As a teenager, Inez and three other girls made a plan to run away. “The situation was really bad,” she remembers, “We never had enough to eat. We were always on our knees, constantly praying.”
Sneaking down the fire escape one night, the foursome fled. They were caught in short order, punished with a strapping, and told, “If you ever run away again, you’re going to go home in a wooden box.”
Like many residential schools, boys and girls lived and were educated separately at St. Barnabas. Inez and a brother were on either side of this divide. She was not usually allowed to speak to him, however, she remembers meeting him in a parlour and that “he looked exactly like me.”
The pair reconnected on a school outing where the children were piled onto a truck “like cattle.” They sat next to each other and he taught her how to say ‘stick’ in Cree.
In listening to children crying at night, meeting her father’s family, and sacred times with her brother, Inez found fuel for a lifelong appetite to learn Cree. “I wanted that language so bad. I knew it that it was meant for me. My ear was always tuned to hear this Cree because it was such a beautiful, beautiful music.”
She left St. Barnabas in her late teen years and went to work at a doctor’s office in Fort Qu’Appelle, continued her education, got married, and had six children.
Today this soft spoken and good-humoured woman struggles with how her time at residential school made intergenerational survivors out of her children. She speaks with sorrow about the cruelty and bitterness and anger that she passed on to them as she tries to understand and heal from her life at St. Barnabas.
Like many Indian residential school survivors, Inez has done a lot of work for the sake of her own healing and the healing of her family. As an adult, she returned to Indigenous spirituality and ceremonies and now feels at home on her healing path.
Inez also carries with her a deep compassion for her former teachers at St. Barnabas. “They must have been having hard times and they took it out on us,” she says sympathetically, “They were mean because they had all this work. Probably they were under a lot of stress looking after us, so they stressed us out, too.”
Now, generations after she left residential school, Inez sits near the archive tables in Edmonton and is pensive, “My life has been pretty well fragmented. Now I’m just tying up the pieces . . . getting them together.”
Two of significant pieces have yet to find their place in the story of Inez Dieter’s life. She is still missing her siblings Hilda and Edward. Like Inez, they attended St. Barnabas. Unlike Inez, they did not survive. They are among the upwards of 4,000 Indigenous children who died in residential schools in Canada. They were not returned to their families, nor has Inez been able to find their graves.
Saskatchewan Anglicans Roger and Mary-Ann Assaily embody a deep commitment to right relationship, and through this commitment find their own story woven with Inez Dieter’s in providential ways.
The Assailys first met Inez Dieter at a Regina TRC community hearing, where Inez gave testimony about her time in residential school and of her missing brother and sister. They felt a connection with her because she came from Red Pheasant First Nation, which was quite close to where they lived and worked for some time.
Months later at the Onion Lake regional hearing, the Assailys remembered Inez and sought help in looking for the graves of Hilda and Edward. Through a few connections, they managed to find a fenced-in, abandoned graveyard nearby the ruins of St. Barnabas Indian residential school.
In silence, they picked up decaying and knocked over crosses, and scraped thick moss off wooden grave markers revealing the first names of the Indigenous children who lay below.
They prayed, took some photographs, and left.
Two years passed. Regional hearings and national TRC events continued. At the last of these in Edmonton, Roger thought to bring photos from that day in the Onion Lake graveyard to Anglican archivist Nancy Hurn.
While Roger was uploading pictures of the grave markers, Inez wandered by looking for records and photos from her time at St. Barnabas. Roger helped find a binder for her, and Inez shared with him that she had lost a sister and brother there. Since they died before Inez was even born, she was craving any kind of connection with them.
Roger clicked through a few pictures and as he turned the laptop around said, “This is at the bottom of the hill from the school.” On the screen was a long-forgotten cross that said simply, “Hilda.”
Inez broke down and began to weep. Roger joined her.
A journey that began with a small child on a train going across the Prairies, now finds part of its end more than seventy years later in a bustling conference centre—Inez had finally found Hilda’s grave.
The grave of brother Edward still has not been found. The Assailys plan to go back, keep tidying up graves, and finding more names.
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