Educator, former chief shares his residential school story
- NC Raine | October 18, 2018
“Culture and language (are) not the responsibility of the schools. It’s too important to be taught at schools.”
Few people have experienced more highs and traumatic lows of Saskatchewan’s education system than residential school survivor, teacher, and writer Raphael Paul. Author of Beauval Residential School: 1944-1954, the 80-year-old Paul has documented his decade long stint in a residential school, shedding light on his story of survival and the effect it’s had on his life. However, Paul said book is stands out from other accounts of residential school survival.
“When you’re ten years in an institution, it wasn’t abuse all the time. You weren’t abused daily. When people talk about their experience, the thing that hits them most is the negative aspect. But there’s a lot of good things that happened there,” said Paul. “So, I didn’t dwell too much on the negative part.”
Paul’s book aims to paint a comprehensive portrait of his residential school childhood, highlighting the ways in which he and his fellow students coped with adversity.
“In a (residential school) you have to think of ways to survive. Our way of surviving and coping was coming up with our own activities,” said Paul, reflecting on hockey and friendship. “We had to come up with our own ingenuities – our own ways to survive.”
Paul not only survived through the education system, he prospered. After graduation, Paul decided to contribute to education in a more constructive way by becoming a teacher trained from the area encompassing English River First Nation. He worked as a teacher for over 30 years in schools across Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, before becoming the Director of Education with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council for nine years. Paul then served as Chief of English River First Nation from 2007-2011, and is now focused on writing and bringing voices to those that we lost.
“By the time I was 16 years old, I was already assimilated. So, my Dene culture was diminished quite a bit. I didn’t know the stories, I didn’t know what the culture of the Dene was,” said Paul, who plans to publish another book on the Dene history of the Patuanak community.
“I want this book to be a part of the Dene history.”
Through his time as student and teacher, Paul has seen and been a part of a great deal of change the education system. He has strong convictions on reviving culture and Indigenous language, but contrary to popular opinion, believes schools shouldn’t play a role in its regeneration.
“It might not please a lot of people, but culture and language (are) not the responsibility of the schools. It’s too important to be taught at schools. It has to be a community project. Community must talk and practice culture,” said Paul.
He added language and culture, like that of the Dene people, faces extinction if young generations do not embrace it. He said it should be removed from schools, and elders in the community should be more involved.
“If you want to revive your language, you have to live it. You can’t practice it, you have to live it,” said Paul.
“Even though the path toward reviving our way of life is (difficult), there is still hope that it will be revived again. There’s that hope that we will get our people in the future to think about what their ancestors let go.”