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A classroom scene at Vancouver’s Jericho Hill School for blind and deaf students in 1957. Photo courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

The other residential schools

Nine Canadian boarding schools for the deaf and blind have faced legal action. Former students remember the abuse and displacement they experienced as children.

By Trisha Elliott


In 1980, five-year-old Leanne Hennigar was enrolled in Jericho Hill School, a boarding school for blind and deaf students in Vancouver. She was just seven years old when she was assaulted for the first time, sexually abused by a fellow student who had himself been abused by a teacher. At the time, she thought what was happening to her was normal, not only because she was too young to know better but also because sexual abuse was rampant at the school. It had been for decades — a fact confirmed in a formal investigation.

Hennigar, who is deaf, was sent to Jericho Hill for a specialized education. Starting in the 1830s, scores of Canadian children have lived at similar institutions across the country, run by provinces or, in Quebec, churches. Attendance is voluntary, but many parents have felt they had no other choice if their children were to receive an education that meets their specific needs.

In an interview, Hennigar says the abuse continued into her teenage years. “I was brainwashed. . . . I blame the school administration for what happened and the staff for the secrecy,” she says. Along with fellow student John Pratt, she brought a class-action lawsuit against the Province of British Columbia in 1998. In 2004, Hennigar (then Rumley) and Pratt won a $12.5-million settlement. By then, the suit had mushroomed to include 350 former Jericho Hill students. Hennigar’s groundbreaking lawsuit set a legal precedent for the Indigenous residential school abuse trials that would follow. It also laid the groundwork for a series of class-action suits against provinces and Quebec churches running residential schools for children with disabilities.

The stories sound familiar. They have the same horrific ring of the testimonies contained in the Truth and Reconciliation report: physical and psychological abuse; displacement from family systems; institutionalization; the goal of assimilation into the dominant culture.

“A lot of people don’t know what it was like for us disabled folks. There’s so much press about the Indigenous schools but nothing about the blind and deaf schools,” says Bruce Atchison as he reflects on why he decided to self-publish his memoir, Deliverance from Jericho: Six Years in a Blind School. Atchison, who now lives in Radway, Alta., went to Jericho Hill from 1964 to 1970.

After his first day of class in September, Atchison waited outside his dorm expecting to be taken home. “I asked one of the kids, ‘When do we go home?’ He said, ‘Christmas.’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was joking.” That’s how Atchison learned he had been sent to residential school. 

Life as Atchison knew it — his family, food, clothes, bedroom, even playtime — evaporated. He fell into a state of depression. “Despair,” more like. “A jail,” he calls it. There were five beds to a room, and Atchison was relegated to sleeping beside the school bully. At home, he’d had the freedom to play on his own; now, he was forced to walk in rows, holding hands with other boys while supervisors hovered over every outing. He was scolded for referring to “Mom” and “Dad” — “Mother” and “Father” were more proper.

Atchison told his parents how he felt. “They said that I shouldn’t be complaining, that these people give me three meals a day and a place to sleep and access to education. Of course, that didn’t help at all.” Family bonds weakened as he grew up separated from his parents and sisters. Forty-seven years later, Jericho Hill still haunts Atchison’s dreams.

Leanne Hennigar says she was “brainwashed” into secrecy about her sexual abuse as a student at Jericho Hill residential school in the 1980s. Photo by Derek Ford

Four provinces away, at roughly the same time, Tom Dekker attended W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont. He describes the corporal punishment he endured at the school between 1958 and 1970. “I got kicked in the behind so hard one day I went flying up the stairs. . . . I got whacked in the head so hard that my ears rang for hours afterward.” Dekker, who had compromised retinas, speculates that the physical violence cost him even more sight. The verbal abuse was as bad as the physical. They told him things like, “You are really useless” and “You’ll never make it in the sighted world.”

Why didn’t he tell?

Some students in Grade 7 had a protest about something they didn’t like at the school. “All of a sudden, they were gone,” says Dekker. “Expelled just like that. There was just a culture of ‘keep quiet’ because you didn’t know what would happen if you said anything.”

Now, people are talking. Coast to coast, lawsuits are either pending or have been settled in at least five provinces pertaining to nine schools offering residential programs for the deaf, blind and deaf-blind. The scope of the emerging suits is astonishing. In February 2016, a $30-million settlement was awarded to those abused by the Clercs de Saint-Viateur at the Montreal Institute for the Deaf — the largest settlement for sexual assault in Quebec history. In April, an $8-million settlement was reached with the Province of Ontario for abuses at W. Ross Macdonald.

In a report published in 2000, the Law Commission of Canada answers the sorry question that surfaces in the face of Canada’s stunning history of institutionalized child abuse: how could this happen? Take children who are already marginalized, it says, and put them in a situation where there is little outside monitoring. Hand the people who have power over them the clout of the government or the moral authority of the church. Douse it all in institutional life.

“While we encouraged most children in the eighties and the nineties to ‘go tell,’ we were not prepared to listen to what children who were deaf had to say,” wrote then-B.C. Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum in a 1993 report about Jericho Hill sent to the minister of education. “The systems upon which we rely were never designed to meet the needs of children who are deaf or children who are disabled. Most of the administrators and caregivers at the school were not proficient in American Sign Language. Few, if any, police or Crown Counsel could communicate with the abuse victims claiming abuse. Most of the parents of the resident children had never been given the opportunity to learn sign language and to communicate effectively with their children. These children had few people, except each other, to go tell.”

Before Hennigar and Pratt’s successful suit against Jericho Hill, 10 other students disclosed abuse in 1982. The whistleblowers paid a steep price when their concerns weren’t taken seriously enough. One was later convicted of manslaughter, and another was suspended for inappropriate sexual behaviour. Two of them attempted suicide; only one succeeded. Another one struggled with severe depression.

Leanne Hennigar’s mother, Sharon Rumley, was convinced that Jericho Hill was the best school for her daughter. It was known for its quality education and widely regarded as safe and caring. At the time, Rumley was desperate to have her daughter educated. Parting with Leanne was numbing, but she told herself that she was doing what she had to for her daughter.

Looking back, Rumley recalls that Leanne was always coming down with something. A cold. Bronchitis. There were a few bruises. Nothing that added up to much, though. Later, Leanne grew rebellious — a typical teenager, Rumley thought. One day, Leanne told her that there was bad stuff going on and invited her to go to the school and see for herself.

When Rumley heard about a school concert that parents were allowed to sleep in the dormitories to attend, she seized the opportunity to investigate. “That’s when I started looking at things,” says Rumley. “You could sense something was off. There was a kind of hiding.”

The disturbing truth seeped out as Leanne started giving her more details. “We were appalled. We had to get her out of there,” she says. They transferred Leanne to a school in Washington, D.C.

Betty Nobel (right) reads in braille to her granddaughter Macynna. Nobel attended Jericho Hill residential school in the 1950s and ’60s and had a good experience there. Photo by Jennifer Gauthier

But away from the abuse, Leanne’s memories started coming back, the torment driving her to become suicidal. “All I could think about was, ‘I have to get her home. I have to get her into counselling,’” says Rumley. “We got her away from the school [Jericho Hill], and we thought everything was going to be okay, but of course, abuse follows you.” Rumley arranged for Leanne to see a counsellor, started a support group for former students and, later, hired a lawyer.

Not every tough beginning at residential school met a tragic end. When Linda Nickerson was 12, her family doctor told her father that if he didn’t send her away, she would never be educated. “I was the baby and the apple of his eye,” she says, her voice breaking. Nickerson, now living in Saint John, N.B., attended the Halifax School for the Blind in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

While parting from her family was difficult, Nickerson says she was excited to move from an isolated rural community to a place brimming with kids like her. “Residential school was really great because you were equal. . . . I had a really good experience. We were given opportunities that I would never have had at school. Like, some went on to be concert pianists. I wasn’t one of them,” she says with a laugh.

Though many see residential schools as isolating, several deaf advocacy groups claim that they afforded a precious sense of belonging by providing the initial exposure to deaf identity and deaf culture. When ASL (American Sign Language) was permitted, they argue, the schools were the cultural nest in which kids learned their first language.

Phil Wilson considers ASL his mother tongue. The student supply minister at the United Church’s Adolphustown-Conway pastoral charge on the outskirts of Napanee, Ont., can hear, but both of his parents are deaf. He remembers the day his father divulged the abuse he experienced at residential school. “He cried when he told me he was thrown into a blackboard,” says Wilson, his voice softening. Not only was Wilson’s dad physically assaulted, but he was also prohibited from using sign language.

That’s because in Milan, Italy, in 1880, 49 years after the first residential school for the deaf opened in Canada, 164 members from eight countries gathered to make the landmark education decision that would ban sign language from classrooms around the world. The Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf decided that oral (lip-reading) education was better than manual (sign) education. Only one person in the room was actually deaf. The ban was in effect when Wilson’s dad attended residential school, and remained so until 1980 when the congress declared that all deaf children have the right to flexible communication.

“Whenever you deprive a community of its language, you automatically deprive it of its culture,” says Wilson, who considers himself bicultural and spells “Deaf” with a capital D, a convention used by those who identify themselves as culturally deaf or who have a strong deaf identity. 

Betty Nobel was a young girl catching chickens when she learned she was different. Her friends told Nobel, now a member of Wilson Heights United in Vancouver, that she couldn’t see. It was a revelation. She ran to her mother, crying. “My mother said, ‘Just go back out there and tell them that you see with your fingers.’ So that’s what I did.”

Nobel attended Jericho Hill for 10 years in the 1950s and ’60s, though only two in residence, and had a good experience there. She holds a master’s degree in education and currently teaches blind students.

Nobel says that in her experience as an educator, integration can be positive, but students can also feel isolated even when they are included in regular classrooms. “They are different, so they feel that they stick out and sometimes find it challenging socially,” she says. “They may be integrated into the regular system, but they aren’t really because they don’t have the same kind of social contact and peer interactions that some of the other kids do.”

Every province in Canada has a policy on inclusive education. But according to Helena Sonea, a disability expert who authored a resource guide on inclusive education published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, how inclusivity is defined, how it’s funded and what it looks like on the ground varies from one jurisdiction to another. “There is no one solution,” she says over the phone about Canada’s fragmented approach to special education, inclusion and mainstreaming. “People can’t just lump every person with a disability into the same category. Everyone’s lived experience of disability is very different.”

While deaf and blind students sometimes attended the same residential schools, their experiences differ not only because of individual circumstances — such as proximity to family — but also in terms of the nature and degree of the disability itself. In some circles, the terms “disability” and “impairment” are dirty words; they smack of ableism, discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. Some prefer to speak of difference. Others, especially members of the deaf community, cultural pride.

It’s complicated. But what’s clear is that for some, the immersive experience of residential school is indispensable. The concept of residential school isn’t the issue; the abuse is. In April 2016, when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she couldn’t guarantee that the handful of remaining residential schools for deaf, blind and special needs children would remain open, hundreds of parents and students rallied outside the legislature. The concern is warranted. Already, Canadians with visual challenges and hearing conditions end their schooling earlier than the general population: 20 percent of people with disabilities don’t have a high school diploma, compared to 11 percent of people without disabilities. Without access to a strong education at the beginning of their lives, this gap could grow even wider.

Tom Dekker describes a recent visit to W. Ross Macdonald, the school where he was repeatedly assaulted as a boy. “The place is totally different from what it was.” He sounds philosophical: “Bringing to light what has happened in the past — that’s why the place has moved forward, and that’s why it has changed. People have come to the realization it’s time to do something completely different, so it ends up being positive in its own way.”

Old videotapes and interviews from her daughter’s court proceedings are stored in boxes in Sharon Rumley’s home. She has a hard time looking at them. “It just upsets me,” she says. She can’t ever forget what her daughter experienced. “I think about it all the time. But you have to move on with your life. It won’t get better or heal. You manage it. It never goes away.”

Leanne Hennigar says she was sad and angry for two years after winning her landmark case. Some people who were unhappy with the amount they received in the settlement process turned their anger on her. Counselling helped Hennigar overcome the fatigue of the emotional court battle and the pain of the abuse. “I’ve finally got peace of mind,” she says. “Life goes on. I got married and have my sons who keep me busy. I’m tough. I wouldn’t give up. I’m proud of what I’ve done. It was the right thing to do. Now I want to tell the world my story.”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.





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