Book Review by Nina Green
The Fire Still Burns. Sam George. Vancouver: Purich Books/University of British Columbia Press, 2023.
SAM GEORGE'S MEMOIR, The Fire Still Burns, published in May 2023, ends on an ominous note:
Now there’s talk of using ground-penetrating radar at St. Paul’s. A lot of the grounds have been paved over (to make way for St. Thomas Aquinas School), but I went up there and I seen where we dug that hole. It’s still there. It hasn’t been paved over.
The Squamish Band’s entrepreneurial efforts have made the Band wealthy and influential. According to Sam George’s book, published this year, the Band owns Lynn Terminal (p. 80), and it has recently initiated a multimillion dollar development at the foot of the Burrard Street bridge in downtown Vancouver. A GPR search by the Squamish Band would be a well-publicized event, and Sam George intimates there’s going to be one based solely on his recollection of a hole he and his brother Andy allegedly dug in 1956 in the vegetable garden at St Paul’s. He tells the story on pp. 52-3 of The Fire Still Burns:
At the time, it seemed strange, but we never thought anything of it. Today I’m trying not to suspect it was a grave. I don’t know. I just hope it wasn’t. No boys went missing then. I don’t know about the girls. I once tried to talk to Andy about it, and he got angry and told me to eff off. He didn’t want to talk about it, and in his eyes you could see he was hurting. You could see the pain there. He said, “I don’t effing want to talk about it. Just eff off.” And eff off meant change the subject. I believe that, like many of us, he’s still packing the pain and the effects of residential school.
Conveniently, Sam George doesn’t remember the name of the nun who told him to dig the hole, although his recollection of every other detail is perfect, and neither Sam George nor those at Langara College who helped him write and publish his book bothers to question the bizarre claim that a student would have been clandestinely buried by nuns in the middle of the school’s vegetable patch in downtown North Vancouver in 1956!
The North Shore News describes Sam George’s memoir as “an unflinchingly honest account of his time at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver.” Is that assessment borne out by the book itself, or did Sam George conceal relevant information?
In fact, Sam George did conceal relevant information. He makes no mention at all in his book of the fact that the application form for his admission to St. Paul’s states that he had attended the Squamish Day School for two years before he was admitted to St. Paul’s at the age of 8. His brother Andy, admitted at the same time at the age of 10, had attended the Squamish Day School for 3 years, and his sister Margaret, also admitted at the same time at the age of 12, had attended the Squamish Day School for four years. On the application forms, the three children are all listed as Catholic, and English speakers. All three required dental work to be done, which the school arranged for.
The Squamish Day School Sam George and his siblings attended had been in operation since 1922, and was located on the same grounds in downtown North Vancouver as the residential school.
The Indian Act was very clear that no parent could be compelled to send a child to a residential school if there was a day school on the reserve the child could attend, so why did Sam George conceal the important fact that there was not only a day school on the reserve which he and his siblings could have attended, but that in fact all three had actually been attending that day school for several years?
He slides over the fact that he and his siblings had been attending day school in a chapter entitled “Our Lives Signed Away’, where he merely says his father took them to the residential school and signed ‘papers’:
My dad walked into her [Sister Michaela’s] office, and I could see him signing papers. I didn’t know it then, but he was signing our lives away. When he was finished, he walked out of the office, looked down at us. “You kids listen, and you be good.” (p. 25)
Why did Sam George's father apply to have his children attend the residential school only four blocks from their house on the reserve? The reason is alluded to on p. 38:
When I was about eight or nine, I got very sick. Double pneumonia. I almost died. I remember Mother Michaela took my temperature and put me in bed in the little boys’ dorm, which was where everyone went when they were sick. My older sister Margaret came to see me; she looked worried, and then the nuns started dressing me. They took me by taxi to St. Paul’s Hospital. Margaret came with me and Mother Michaela to the hospital. . . . I stayed in the hospital for about two months. My dad came to see me at the hospital and my mom came too. By this time, my parents had both started drinking and had split up. My dad was living in North Vancouver and my mom in Upper Squamish. My oldest brother, Ross, came to see me too. I finally left at Easter time. [Emphasis added.]
Sam George says he was already enrolled at residential school when his parents both started drinking and split up, but it seems almost certain that his parents had started drinking and were on the verge of a split-up, or had already split up, when his father signed the application forms for Sam and his siblings to attend St. Paul’s. In other words, a dysfunctional family situation was the real reason Sam George and his siblings were sent to residential school.
That residential schools became child welfare institutions in the latter years is clearly stated in The Indian In Transition - The Indian Today, a pamphlet published by Indian Affairs in 1962 (p. 8):
After a change in Indian Affairs policy in 1948, the focus of residential schools was on using them as placements for orphans and children whose parents couldn’t care for them, while integrating the rest of the school age status Indian population into provincial public school systems. By 1962 that policy change had become a reality, but as early as 1952, when Sam George and his siblings were sent to St. Paul’s by their father, the school was already actively discharging students who it was felt could live at home and attend day school to make room for children like Sam George and his siblings, who lacked a stable home situation. Correspondence from September 1952 states that children from the Frank Guerrero, Chief Moses Joseph, William Billy Jr. and Dominic Baker families were being discharged while children like Sam George and his siblings were being enrolled.
So although the North Shore News article describes Sam George’s book as “unflinchingly honest,” it seems that’s not quite the case. It seems he and his siblings were admitted as child welfare cases because their parents were drinking and had either split up or were about to split up. Sam George lays all the blame for his dysfunctional life on the residential school, but the truth appears to be that at the age of 8 he didn’t have a home any more, and that the residential school was seen by his parents as the solution to the problem.
The dysfunctional nature of Sam George’s home situation is amply demonstrated in the book itself. When St. Paul’s closed in 1959, Sam George was only 14. His mother had moved to Upper Squamish, but his father was still living on the reserve, and while Sam was living with his father as a young teenager, he and his friends simply ran wild, not attending school (and apparently not even enrolled), drinking, and breaking into stores and stealing (pp. 58-66). Eventually he injured his brother Andy so badly in a knife fight that he almost killed him, which netted him a seven-year prison sentence at the age of 15 (p. 71).
In the book, Sam George depicts the Sisters of Charity at St. Paul’s as brutally sadistic, and repeatedly expresses his passionate hatred for them. He even accuses one nun (whom he fails to name, thus putting all the nuns under suspicion), of sexually molesting him for two years in the school dormitory, saying she made him her “plaything.” He then claims he kept it secret:
That was why I didn’t want to tell anybody. Not to mention, who was I going to talk to at the school? (pp. 54-5)
That this was a secret because he couldn’t tell anybody, or didn’t want to, is ludicrous. Not only was he going home on weekends, and could have told his father, but obviously the minute he went to the nun’s room in the dormitory, everyone in the dormitory would have known about it. It would have been the talk of the school, and would have spread like wildfire into the community on the reserve. Eventually, he says, the “secret” had to come out:
The first time I really spoke about the sexual abuse in detail was when I went to talk to my lawyer about getting the residential school settlement, before I went before the Indian residential school adjudicator (for the Independent Assessment Process). My lawyer — he was a white guy — told me that everyone he talked to got beat up, slapped around. Everyone got the strap, everyone was made to kneel down. It was a common story that someone had lost their hearing from being hit. He told me that and then he asked me if I’d been sexually abused. I was quiet as I thought about it, and he said, “You were, weren’t you?”
That lawyer was the first person I told all the details to. It was hard. I remember after I told him, I left his office, I sat down on a bench in a park, and I cried. I had to tell him everything so that he could write it up for the Independent Assessment Process. (p. 98)
One can’t help but wonder how many Survivor stories of sexual abuse followed a similar pattern — perhaps false memories surfacing under prompting decades after the fact during the Independent Assessment Process when nothing could be verified because of the passage of time, and because the alleged perpetrators had long since died and could not defend themselves.
Ironically, despite blaming everything that went wrong in his life on residential school, and repeatedly expressing his passionate hatred of the nuns at St Paul’s, who supposedly ruined his life, Sam George sent his own son to St. Edmund's, a day school only a few blocks from St. Paul’s in downtown North Vancouver run by the same Sisters of Charity who were at St. Paul’s (p. 88). If the nuns at St. Paul’s were the brutal sadists and sexual predators he depicts them as, why would he send his son to a school run by the same nuns? Obviously he wouldn’t. Which brings all his stories of physical and sexual abuse at St. Paul's into question, not to mention the hole he dug in the school’s vegetable patch.
And it really is time to ask a pertinent question. How are these fruitless and expensive GPR searches helping Indigenous people all across Canada, particularly Indigenous young people, face the very real problems which confront them? How is dwelling on dark claims by “Survivors” which can never be substantiated, and which grow increasingly more bizarre by the day, helping Indigenous youth? The short answer is these things are not helping Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous youth. It’s time for all of this to stop, and the only way it will stop is for the federal government to stop funding GPR searches to the tune of millions of dollars, and for the federal government to let the RCMP do its job of investigating the so-called “burials” which GPR operators have allegedly found to date, particularly at Kamloops.
Nina Green is an independent researcher and a regular contributor to The Dorchester Review.