Back of the Bus

by Kerry Benjoe

Sitting in the back seat of a small hatchback, is never my first choice in terms of transportation. But as they say, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” My knees are pressed up so hard against the passenger seat every bump hurts a little. I can’t adjust my feet because the floor is littered with empty pop bottles, fast food containers and other garbage. It’s unseasonably warm for October and the heat makes everything even more annoying. I am slowly starting to perspire.

I hate two-door vehicles and I swear never to own one. The sudden click of the turn signal reminds me of where I am, and on cue the knot in my stomach tightens. It’s not so bad, it just gets to be a little much at times.

In a couple hours, I will reach my destination. My stomach rumbles and I hope I can grab a snack later.  I begin to mentally prepare myself. My stomach turns a bit from anxiety, but mostly it’s from the little pine tree air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. It sways back and forth mocking me. I want to grab it and throw it out the window, but I don’t.

There’s no air conditioning, so both side windows are rolled down. Warm air filters in circulates just long enough to gather the sickeningly sweet scent of the air freshener. The powdery smell makes me nauseous. I stare out the small side window observing random pedestrians milling about.

The tick of the car signal suddenly falls silent and I feel the car make that slow turn down that final street. I already know what to expect. It’s not because I am here so often that I remember everything so vividly;, it’s because the parking lot to the left of me and the vacant lot to the right never changes. I doubt it ever will. The car stops in the loading zone of a square, brown, brick building.

The bus depot.

Not much to look at, but it serves its purpose.

***

She’s tall about 5’10, slim with long black hair. She drags her two pieces of luggage out of the small car onto the sidewalk. Despite the heat she slips on a large hooded sweater, clearly not her own. She leaves the hood up and her hair tucked in.The car she climbed out of leaves almost as quickly as it arrived.

No one provides her any assistance, but she seems to know what she’s doing. She grabs one bag and slings it over her right shoulder and it settles just above her left hip. She grabs an even larger bag and heaves it over her other shoulder. Combined they look like they equal her body weight, but that doesn’t seem to bother her.

After securing her load, like a seasoned vet, she takes the hood down and walks into the building.

***

Having to carry everything I own in the world gets pretty tiring. The heavy sweater prevents the straps from tearing into my shoulders and pulling my hair. I keep my eyes on the sidewalk until I have to stop.

I can almost count the steps. 

The small glass double doors make it difficult to maneuver into the building, but I push through. As soon as I open the doors I’m greeted with that same familiar smell.

Everything about this place reeks of oldness. It’s a combination of industrial cleaner, dust, smoke and mildew. A few more steps to take before I can rest, I tell myself. The bags are heavy, but necessary. I make it to the row of chairs that are bolted to the floor and take off the large heavy bag and set it down.

The blaring orange lockers on one wall are hard to ignore. Every time I see them I wonder if they were chosen to brighten the dull building or to coordinate with the rows of blue plastic seats. The interior screams 1965, but in office form. I’m actually not sure when it was built, but definitely long before I first stepped through those doors.

I walk over to the wall of colour-coded paper baggage tags. I grab a couple blue tags and fill them out. Blue is for travel in Saskatchewan and is the most dominant colour. Pink is for Wild Rose Country or Alberta, white is for Manitoba, orange is for Ontario. There are other colours, but I can’t remember because I have never had a reason to use them. I’ve learned it’s easier to tag my bags while they’re not attached to me, plus it gives me a short reprieve from the weight.

I check once more for my ticket money, which I keep tucked safely in my pants pocket. Sometimes I have a whole $20. Once I buy my ticket I’m left with $9 and some change, which I have to budget.

I walk towards the ticket counter at the very back of the building.  I wait my turn then, shuffle up to the counter.

“Lebret, one way.”

***

This Sunday ritual is one that was normal not only for me but for others of my generation. It’s funny, Although I was clearly underage, no one ever questioned why I was traveling alone.

Where was I headed with all my worldly possessions? I was headed to the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School (QIRS) located in Lebret, Sask. 

For more than a century, First Nations were placed in this school. It wasn’t until much later in life, I learned the real history of these institutions. I was the fourth and final generation to attend residential school.

Indian Residential Schools are almost as old as Canada. On January 28, 1879 Nicholas Flood Davin was selected by John A. MacDonald for a one-man private mission to study Indian industrial schools south of the border. Davin claims to have travelled to Minnesota and Virginia and met with the principals of the Industrial Schools at both. Then on his return to Canada, he travelled to Winnipeg to meet with different church leaders to discuss how they could become a part of this initiative.

By March 14, 1879 he submitted his confidential Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, also known as the Davin Report, to Ottawa. He recommended Canada not only create the schools but also where the schools should be located. 

According to several sources and historical documents, although Davin was a great orator and writer, he was not known for his honesty. There are still many unanswered questions about him, such as his family history, his time in the military and even how he arrived in Canada.

Nonetheless, in 1884 Canada got into the “education” business based on the 17-page report he penned.

For some reason, Canada opted not to include the Metis people in the residential school experiment. Initially, the schools were not mandatory and as a result attendance would fluctuate.

However, in 1920 under the rule of Liberal Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden residential schools became mandatory and children were torn from their homes like criminals by the RCMP and Indian Agents. This practice of forced removal remained in place until 1951 when the Indian Act was repealed and replaced with a new updated version. However, many reserves did not have schools in their communities and, although it was no longer mandatory, it was still the law to send children to school and the only option was residential school. 

In the 1970s the churches were removed from the schools as part of the Indian Control of Indian Education movement. By the mid 1980s, individual First Nations assumed control of the schools. Many communities still did not have schools on reserve and if they did they were day schools with no high school, so options remained limited.

Contrary to popular belief, the last residential school in Canada did not close in 1996. On June 30th, 1998, Whitecalf Collegiate closed its doors and was demolished shortly after. The Indian residential school located in the village of Lebret operated from 1884 until 1998 — 114 years.

This was my destination, my school.

***

The bus ride back to school is always the same. Sometimes other students are on the bus with me and there is some comfort in knowing I am not alone. I always line up early so I can sit in the back seat, which is the biggest. There are no windows, but I don’t need windows. 

I rarely talk to anyone. Usually the bus is filled with elderly non-Indigenous people, so I keep to myself. I can tell exactly where I am on my route just by the twists, turns and dips in the road. There are two very distinct dips. The second dip tells me I’m about 20 minutes away from my destination. 

Once the bus makes its decline into the Qu’Appelle valley, I begin to prepare myself mentally for the long walk ahead of me, while lugging all my baggage. I have to say this is the worst part of going home on weekends. 

The bus driver announces the upcoming stop and the noise of the air brakes is my cue to get up and make my way to the front. 

I get off and retrieve my baggage from the sidewalk where the bus driver left it. Once again, I slip on the heavy hooded sweater and get ready to load myself up. .

***

A group of teens spill out of the local café and arcade. I can hear their raucous banter behind me. One yells,”Benjoe!” and I recognize the voice. It’s music to my ears. 

I turn and immediately smile. As I am standing there, one of the guys grabs my heavy bag and throws it over his shoulder.  The long walk I was dreading immediately changes. Instead, we laugh, joke and share snacks as we walk to the school.

We turn off main street, onto the lane lined with huge overhanging trees filled with yellow, orange and red leaves. The heat of the city is gone. A warm breeze, cooled by the lake, hits my face and I close my eyes and welcome the fresh air. 

At the end of the lane is a large school compound and in the centre is a huge brown brick building. It looks out of place compared to the rest of the surroundings. It is a hub of activity as parents drop off their children and say their goodbyes in the parking lot. Students of all ages wander around the grounds. The school houses 200 students from Grades 2 to 12. 

I enter the building and my companions drop my baggage. I go find a supervisor to check in. Late check-ins means weekend passes are revoked. I rarely go home, so this doesn’t bother me, but I did want to unpack and have some free time before lights out. 

***

Sunday routine, arrive, check in and unpack.

Once I enter my room and I am all alone my feelings are mixed. I unpack my clothes and personal items and place them back into the empty dresser drawers. Whenever I leave I take all my belongings with me. I hang my jackets up and place my teddy bear back on my bed. 

It takes about an hour to get my room back in order.. 

There is sadness in this little ritual because I never know when I will get to go home.  Everything I own and cherish is in this room, so I learn to care for my possessions. The hospital corners on my bed are perfect. 

This room is my safe haven. 

Other than placing a few personal belongings on my dresser, my room looks like everyone else’s on this floor. We all have the same two pink towels, flowered pink sheets, red bed cover and grey fire-alarm blanket. The only way I know for certain what belongs to me is by my number, which is clearly marked on all my possessions including my bedding and towels. 

I look out my window and take in the scenery, which is always the same. Outside, a teenage boy waves up at me and shouts, “You got my sweater?”

“I’ll be right down,” I say.

I grab the thick hooded sweater and make my way to the front courtyard. I fall back into routine and sadness leaves me. 

I may be alone and far from home, but it’s not so bad. 

My stomach rumbles and I ask the supervisor on duty if there is still an evening snack and luckily there is. I grab a couple orange halves and head out to meet my friends. 

Like so many others, of my generation, to attend high school I had to leave my reserve, but I am fortunate to have attended this school at this particular time. 

The Starblanket Cree Nation operated the school during its final decade and in that time it earned a reputation for athletics and academics. In a relatively short period of time Indigenous people were able to turn something negative into something positive, 

Many students from this last generation look back at their time with fondness for different reasons. I still respect my former supervisors because they had a part in helping to raise me. 

This is my story of residential school, it was not perfect, but it wasn’t horrible. 

Artwork created by Jahnlin Deneyou for use in this project.