This article contains descriptions of abuse endured or witnessed by children at “Indian hospitals” that may be triggering. It mentions suicide and violence against children including sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse.
Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.
The morning’s rain has just stopped and soft, warm light filters through a translucent patio covering onto Melven Jones’ face. Lines run across his bronze-brown forehead and out from his deep-set eyes as memories furrow the 64-year-old’s brow.
“I was six. I was vulnerable in every way.”
Jones’ story of survival is different from many other Indigenous peoples’. He only attended the residential school in Port Alberni for a couple of days before he was uprooted once again and forced into the Nanaimo Indian Hospital for two years. But, in almost every way that matters – the torture, neglect and attempted cultural eradication – Jones’ story is sickeningly similar.
The Nanaimo hospital was one of an estimated 31 “Indian hospitals” run by the Canadian government from the 1930s to 1980s to segregate Indigenous people from non-Indigenous ones in underfunded facilities with poorly trained staff. They began as a means to sequester the disproportionate number of Indigenous people catching tuberculosis, but soon became a breeding ground for the disease and an experimental lab for vaccines and medical procedures to be tested.
At six years old, Jones had no idea why he had been taken to the hospital, but later in his life when he requested his old medical files, he discovered he’d only contracted tuberculosis after arriving there. Today, he struggles with lung problems as a result.
But it isn’t Jones’ damaged organ tissue that makes it hard for him to breathe when he’s alone or when he wakes shivering in his own sweat in the night. It’s everything else that was done to him.
“I was tied down on a gurney and the doctor and nurse wheeled me into this room where they had this machine,” Jones recalls. They then placed a bite stick in Jones’ mouth and told him to clamp down. “And they had these two electrode things and they zapped me in my side here,” Jones says, pointing at his temples. “They did that for a year. I still remember that. That will never go away.”
Once admitted to the hospital, “patients” were only allowed to leave when an “Indian superintendent” or medical officer allowed them to. At night, Jones says, they were tied to their beds so they couldn’t run away. Even so, he says he tried to on numerous occasions.
Punishments came in the form of whippings and beatings. Jones says he thinks the electric shocks were used when children spoke their own languages.
Other survivors report being tied to their beds for 24 hours a day for months or years at a time, being sexually assaulted, and being forced to eat their own vomit, according to an ongoing national class-action lawsuit.
Jones is calm as he tells his story. He’s warm and personable and inviting. But, his throat catches as he decides to share the one piece of his experience he’s only told three people. He takes a deep breath.
“I got raped at six years old.”
The statement hangs in the air with a quiet force. Jones takes another deep breath and widens his eyes, allowing the cool, fall breeze to dry them.
“It kind of makes me feel more relieved. It does hurt, it does sting, but it has to be put out there. It has to be heard.”
The decades following the hospital have been hard. Returning home, Jones says his parents told him not to talk about his experience out of fear of the government, or “the outside world” as they called life off the reserve. He remembers his brother going into that world one night and returning beaten and bloodied. It wasn’t safe out there, Jones determined. It wasn’t safe to be Indigenous and it wasn’t safe to share his story.
“I buried it so deep, I didn’t even know what happened,” Jones says, explaining the memories were literally non-existent for many years. The pain was always there, though. Twice during his childhood, Jones attempted suicide.
During the Sixties Scoop he was again taken from his parents, and later Jones ended up in a juvenile detention home.
Eventually, Jones realized his pain was taking him down the wrong path and he sought help. He finished high school, went to college, and started a security service in the movie industry.
It was only then, about 10 years ago, when his life had stabled out that his suppressed memories emerged. One night, Jones was showering before going to work and blacked out. A friend found him curled in the bottom of the tub in the fetal position.
“That was the beginning,” Jones says. “Every single day I live to try to have a better day without thinking about this. But it keeps creeping into my head. It keeps driving me crazy.
“I wish there was a way they could just pluck it out of me. I wish I never remembered it.”
On bad days, Jones says he sometimes imagines swimming out into the ocean from Dallas Road, as far as he can go until he’s so tired he knows he has no chance of making it back. But he says he doesn’t really mean it, not like he used to.
“I love life. I love the people that brought me to where I am and helped me out. I did the legwork, they just kind of showed me the right way.”
Jones has three children and three grandchildren he loves dearly. His brother calls him daily and he has a whole host of friends and support workers he raves about.
There are good days and there are bad days, but Jones says all that matters is that each one is a new day. And, when he looks out at the children playing in the courtyard of his Indigenous housing complex, he says he feels some relief.
Trauma is passed down from generation to generation, but healing can be too.
Jones says he prays for every survivor and their families, that they, like him, receive the help and support that they need.
“I am for every Indigenous person here on this island, or anywhere else. I’m for them. And for whatever happened to them, I’m sorry.”
The Nanaimo Indian Hospital ran from 1946 to 1967 across from what is now Vancouver Island University. During those two decades, it saw at least 14,000 patients. On Sept. 15, Snuneymuxw First Nation announced it will soon be searching the old grounds for unmarked graves.
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