It’s a still morning. The early sun is just beginning to warm up the air, but there’s a coolness washing in from the ocean.
The water is like a mirror, frozen in time as if in a painting. The little cove is tucked into a sheltered part of Saanichton Bay, protected from the strength of the ocean by the Cordova Spit and then James Island. It’s quiet apart from the occasional heron call or a lone motor boat cruising off in the distance. Everything is peaceful at his home on the Tsawout First Nation, as if the world is holding its breath and waiting to hear what Victor Underwood has to say.
Underwood is a quiet man. He speaks softly but deliberately. He’s kept these stories inside for a long time, telling very few people about his experiences.
He speaks with a slight lisp, his lips pursed together.
Underwood has no teeth. That’s because when he was in residential school, Underwood was used for practice by a student dentist. With little to no anesthesia, the dentist ripped the teeth from his mouth.
“They said, ‘121 report to the gym,’ – when I was there they called me 121, they didn’t use our names – ‘121 go to the gym.’ On Monday he pulled half of them and Tuesday I had to go back and he pulled the other half.
“When I got home my mom was super mad, she took us to our regular dentist in Sidney and he exploded. He said you can sue these guys, I’ve got your son’s dental records. Of course, my mom didn’t know the word sue so we never did nothing.”
Many children Underwood knew had their teeth pulled. He went to St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, 150 miles from his Saanich Peninsula home. His two younger sisters went to Kuper Island, 70 miles away from their home. His older brother was sent to a residential school in Kamloops, 300 miles away.
“The older you got, the farther away they sent you,” he said.
Throughout his time in residential school, Underwood suffered physical abuse. There were beatings and forced labour, with the “dirtiest work” being dolled out to students as punishment, which they often had to do without being given any cleaning supplies. To this day Underwood refuses to wear a tie because of the painful memories the tightness around his neck brings back – he was knocked unconscious twice in residential school by the teachers swinging him around by his tie and flinging him to the ground.
Some children were specifically targeted for punishment. As a student Underwood showed leadership qualities – he was also a star athlete, playing on a school soccer team that beat the provincial champions 7-0 – and as a result, was punished especially hard. Underwood was made an example of in front of the other students – one time he was beaten in front of all the other students in his class.
But he had to endure it all because there was no escape.
“If we ran away, they’d put our parents in jail. So that’s why none of us ever ran away. We weren’t allowed to speak, we weren’t allowed to say anything, or we’d get punished. That was always the way.
“In residential school the kids who ran away, we thought they were lucky, that they made it maybe. But when they found those bodies … maybe they didn’t, because some of them we never ever seen again.”
Kamloops, where Underwood’s brother attended, was the first site where evidence of a mass burial site at a residential school was found in Canada, triggering a nationwide shockwave that prompted the federal government to recognize Orange Shirt Day – now officially the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – as a day of remembrance.
The Sto:lo Nation is working on an investigation to locate unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died at Fraser Valley residential schools. Surveying for the old site for St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission started last month on Aug. 24.
The radar work will take place over a period of time extending into next year, according to Mike Younie, Mission’s chief administrative officer.
“It’s going to take a long time,” Younie said. “We’re just trying to facilitate it as best we can for them, and they will take the time that they need to get it done.”
The Sto:lo Nation Chiefs Council said they will not be providing information until a later date.
“Every time we talk about residential schools it always opens all the pains I’ve been carrying,” said Underwood. “Now it hurts – when they found those bodies, it hurt even more.”
Talking about residential school experiences was not common when Underwood was younger. His grandfather, father and mother went to residential school – Underwood didn’t know his parents were involved in the system at all for much of his life.
“Most of the people back then, or even our generation today, we will not talk about it or they won’t talk about it. We’re getting very few people that can talk about it right now. Almost all my classmates are gone now. So a lot of them did take their stories to the grave with them. Because it’s really painful, too hurtful. Some of our people are so scared to talk because we’re so scared to get punished.”
Part of Underwood’s reluctance is because he hasn’t been believed in the past. When he was applying for compensation as part of then prime minister Stephen Harper’s government’s common experience program, Underwood was told he wouldn’t be paid any money for his Grade 9 year in residential schools.
“I told him, I’d done Grade 9 and 10 in the same residential school. So how’d I get into Grade 10 without Grade 9 records? And they said (the record) said I went to six different schools and none of them are residential schools. When we checked it out, none of those schools existed in those days.”
In an attempt to fight the decision, Underwood compiled records of his time in residential school during his Grade 9 year. He still has the binder, thick with stacks of records, 319 of them he said, that prove he attended residential school in Grade 9.
“I did everything they told me to but they still said no. The boys from our area, they all lost out. They didn’t fight because it was too painful.”
Since his retirement, Underwood has been working to help others through that pain as an elder-in-residence at Camosun College and later at the University of Victoria. Through his work, Underwood said he’s seeing more Indigenous students graduating and more Indigenous elected representatives in government, which heartens him. He’s lived on the piece of land overlooking Saanichton Bay since he was born, in a house that stands just feet away from the cabin where he was born. Though the water behind him seems calm and fixed, he said things are changing slowly.
“It took me many, many years before I could trust anybody. Our people don’t trust and now we’re learning how to trust again because that trust was never there. Ever.
“We need to get people to listen to the stories that our people share – it’s all we’re asking. This way they’ll have an understanding of why we are the way we are. We share our stories. We’re not asking you for special privileges. We’re just asking to be treated fairly. When that happens, we can make it.”