Dorm Kids

In this chapter of a larger work in progress, Bill Flowers recounts his experiences living at a residential school in North West River run by the International Grenfell Association, where at the age of 13 he stayed in a dormitory among strangers in what was effectively a foreign environment and a significant culture shock. His story could not be complete without discussing this experience, one that has had such a profound impact on his life.

There was a sudden chill in the fall winds as the calendar flipped over to September in 1965. Actually it would not be long before the people of Rigolet would be waking up to an accumulation of snow on the hilltops surrounding the community, signifying another onslaught of winter.

Every September about this time we would also expect to see the small single-engine bush plane dropping in to Rigolet. This was the plane used to fly mercy missions for the International Grenfell Association around Labrador and northern Newfoundland.

The International Grenfell Association, also known as the “IGA”, or the “mission”, came into being in Labrador around the turn of the 20th century. It began when a young doctor, Wilfred Grenfell, came out from England and started a medical mission to deliver health services to the people along the Labrador coast and in northern Newfoundland. Labrador was described at the time, and likely still is in some circles, as desolate. It was a place where people suffered from poverty and many illnesses that would go untreated because there was no one in the territory to deliver healthcare.

These were truly the forgotten people.

Grenfell saw that and set into motion an appeal to the rich and powerful in the United States and in Great Britain for support for a medical mission. He was very successful at what he did and the support he received enabled him to set up hospital headquarters at St. Anthony at the tip of the Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland, with secondary hospitals in Labrador, including North West River and Indian Harbour, about 30 miles outside of Rigolet, where my father was born in 1917.

Along with the hospitals, he established a type of boarding school system designed to bring children from the outlying communities to continue their education. Schools along the north coast of Labrador did not teach beyond grade eight. One of these schools was established in North West River, 100 miles to the west of Rigolet, and the system continued to operate until the 1970s.

The success of the Grenfell mission would in time also attract the support of the Newfoundland government. Grenfell himself was eventually given a knight’s honor by the British throne for his missionary work in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the fall of 1965, the plane’s arrival in Rigolet meant that several children, including me, would be taken from our families for 10 months to live in the dormitory to attend high school in North West River. In those times, this scene replayed itself year after year. Someone would get a message around the community that the plane would be there within an hour to pick up the children.

This time became a time of parting, and a time of apprehension, as we would watch the plane touch down on the waters of the bay. It also became a time when my mother would weep in public as she kissed us goodbye on the wharf where she would watch as we were placed aboard the plane and readied for the flight to North West River. It would be a full 10 months, until the following June, before we would see our families again. I don’t have to tell you that 10 months to a child of 13 is an eternity.

 This time became a time of parting, and a time of apprehension, as we would watch the plane touch down on the waters of the bay.

Mother routinely became depressed by the separation from her children all in the name of pursuing an education. The depression would linger and the headaches would come and go amid a constant worry, until time would start the natural healing process. She knew what her children were experiencing, the shock of being placed in a foreign environment among strangers and being held under the strict observance of British and British-like nannies that the Grenfell mission seemed to think were necessary to rule over the native children.

Mother went through this herself as a young person.

She told me a story back then of how, years before I was born, the Grenfell mission was doing its annual rounds along the coast, by boat then since the use of aircraft at the time was unknown in Labrador. The IGA boat came in to Rigolet in the fall for its usual purpose of rounding up children to bring into North West River for school. The vessel docked and several families stood at dockside to see their children off.

One lady who was there with a small child in her arms was saying goodbye to her older children who were headed out to school. The child she held in her arms was still not of school age. The IGA agent in charge of the boat got out of the vessel and up onto the dock. His stagger suggested to the people on the wharf that he had been drinking. He ordered all the children to immediately get on board, including the child that was in this woman’s arms, whom the mother had no intention of sending to the dorm — the child was too young. He went further than that — he walked over to the mother and took the child out of her arms and placed him on board the boat with the rest of the children. The ropes were released from the wharf and the vessel set sail for North West River, with the child screaming its lungs out and the mother standing forlornly on the dock crying her heart out.

These were times in Labrador, when few if any questioned authority, especially an authority on which people depended for healthcare. The Grenfell mission was one of these authorities to which many people felt they owed their lives. That seemed to entitle the mission to exploit a dependent people.

In the fall, “the dorm” as we called it, became home to children mainly from communities along the north coast of Labrador, from Rigolet to Nain. Each child was given a berth in a bunk bed, in a room that was large enough to accommodate about 12 to 14 children. There were four rooms like this in the dorm and they were what we called the big boys room, the little boys room, the big girls room and the little girls room. The separation, apart from gender, being that the big girls and big boys rooms would have housed mainly those who were in high school.

 The Grenfell mission was one of these authorities to which many people felt they owed their lives. That seemed to entitle the mission to exploit a dependent people.

The place was indeed foreign. It was the first time that I got to use a flush toilet (I remember asking Richard Rich, another dorm kid also from Rigolet, to show me how to flush it). It was the first time that I would live in a place with electric lights, and it is the first time that most of us would see an automobile or television set. It would also be a time for new dorm kids like me to experience a devastating illness – the wrenching pain of homesickness.

In North West River, we were referred to by many in the community as “dorm kids”, something meant to draw a clear distinction between the children of North West River, and the natives unfortunate enough to be from the coast and having to put up with life in the dormitory.

A year or two before my sojourn to North West River, my older brother Tom had gone to the dorm but suffered such homesickness that he became physically ill and had to be sent back to Rigolet. He told us the story of how he was so sick he could not eat. The shock of being in this environment, with so many strangers around, and trying to eat the food that was served up, was more than he could handle.

The people who ran the dorm for the Grenfell mission were called the housemother and housefather. They did not believe that Tom was really ill because of the separation from his family. If he was homesick, then it was not serious and he would get over it in time. He was told that he was acting like a small child. Because Tom would not eat, the house parents took it upon themselves to force feed him.

Meals in the dorm were served in a big dining room for all the kids, both big and small. There would be six to a table. This one particular day, one of the house parents felt that it was time Tom ate something. He walked down to where Tom was sitting, and stood over him with a strap and in a loud voice ordered him to eat. Tom began to eat but only continued eating until he vomited on his plate. All of this happened with about 50 other children looking on, including our older sister Marie, who had to suffer the pain of witnessing this kind of aggression directed at her younger brother.

 He walked down to where Tom was sitting, and stood over him with a strap and in a loud voice ordered him to eat.

Shortly after, someone decided to send Tom back to Rigolet for the rest of the school year. Later that fall, my parents received a letter from Dr. Tony Paddon, the person in charge of the Grenfell Mission in North West River, who later went on to become Newfoundland’s Lieutenant Governor. The letter amounted to a lecture on education and homesickness and how Tom should not have returned to Rigolet. “Yours,” he wrote in the letter, “is a close knit family”. Amid the lecture about the merits of going to the dorm (after all, each child represented a certain dollar figure from the government), the remark about the close-knit family was made as if it were a bad thing!

As I thought about the experiences of my older brothers and sisters, I headed into my first of two years in the dorm, with a lot of anxiety and fear. I felt alone, with no one around to talk about it.

All I could do was try to forge ahead. We were told that we should not fret about home, and that if we did we would be regarded as troublemakers. At one point, when several of us talked about wanting to go back to Rigolet, we were summoned to the home of the school principal William Rompkey, who eventually became a Member of Parliament and a representative from Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada’s Senate. He told us that we were causing trouble and that we were upsetting other children so we should forget about going back home. There was no more to it than that. We were offered no help to deal with our homesickness, no help to try and get us to settle in and concentrate on school, no guidance — nothing. When I look back on it now, it is like we were put in a rowboat, shoved out to sea, and told to navigate without oars.

I am not a child psychologist, but I don’t think it is too hard to understand that taking 13 and 14-year-old children, and even younger in many cases, away from their families and placed in this type of environment in itself was wrong. But to do it and offer no guidance, support, understanding, not even a kind word of comfort, was doubly wrong.

I used to say when I was growing up that every community on the coast of Labrador ought to have its own high school and teachers so that children in the future would not have to suffer such trauma in their young and formative years. At the time, high schools along the coast seemed like an impossibility and would likely never happen. Now it is hard to believe that we had to put up with this archaic system of residential schools. At any rate, I did not believe that coastal communities should be dependent on North West River for education. The system we grew up with was one that presided over the break up of families and it has had untold psychological effects on at least two generations of people along the coast of Labrador. It was a system perpetuated by the Grenfell Mission and supported by the Government of Newfoundland. Thankfully all communities now have high schools and the dormitory system is no longer in existence.

I am not going to try to convince you that every child who went to the dorm felt the way I do. Not at all. There are those who feel that the system was the best thing that ever happened to them, and for education in Labrador, the same as you will find when you talk to survivors of residential schools all across the country. There are those who would have gone to the very worst reputed residential school and will say that they were not harmed, and indeed some are thankful for the education that they delivered. But those I suggest are by far the exception rather than the rule. For the most part the system, much the same as that instituted by the Grenfell Mission and the Newfoundland Government, in Labrador, left generations of Aboriginal Peoples with untold wounds — and these wounds have not yet healed.

Some things stand out clearly in my memory of my two years in the dormitory at North West River. One of these was the time someone robbed me of some money. I had five dollars in my wallet that I simply placed in my drawer one day. None of us had locks, as I recall. Let me tell you, five dollars to a 14-year-old in 1965 was a small fortune, so when it just disappeared on me, I was devastated. One of the students though, who saw me put the money in the drawer, said to me the next time you open that wallet, the money will be gone. And sure enough it was gone the next time I opened it.

I reported my loss to the managers of the dorm and I made sure to identify the student who said to me that my money would be gone. A couple days later Jack Watts, a Grenfell manager, came into the big boys room to hold something of an investigation. He went around to every person and asked each in turn whether he had taken my money. Each of course said no, he hadn’t, and that was the end of it. I never did find out what happened to my money, and I never did get it back. Out of this experience, I distinctly remember feeling though that the mission did not do enough to try to recover the money. The way it was left hanging when no one owned up to the theft, was in my mind sending a message that it is okay to steal as long as you don’t get caught. That seemed to be the only lesson learned from the incident. Or perhaps there was a belief that I didn’t have the money to steal in the first place.

 We were told that we should not fret about home, and that if we did we would be regarded as troublemakers.

Matters of theft lead me to another memory of something that happened while I was at the dormitory. One thing that all dorm children could agree on was that, day in and day out, the food was less than appetizing. There was more than one night that I went to bed hungry. School days were long and drawn out, and by afternoon, I was barely able to sit through a class without falling asleep. Perhaps a lack of proper nutrition in our diets may have had something to do with this. The situation was of course compounded by several incredibly boring teachers, who themselves could barely stay awake.

At some point along the way I became tired of being without money and tired of being hungry, so several of us decided to go to the Hudson’s Bay Company store for the purpose of stealing something to eat. I somehow smuggled out a package of sweet biscuits. I don’t remember what the other fellows took, if anything. But for me it was the only time in my life that I willfully and deliberately planned a robbery, and perhaps as in the classic Les Miserables, it was simply because I was hungry. I did share the goods though with my friends, and the chocolate biscuits were a wonderful treat.

When I went to the dormitory I made sure I took along a picture of my mother and father. I kept it in a frame by my bedside so I could look at it every night before the lights went out.

Being away from my family, and not knowing of their welfare, made me a worrier. I knew that my older brother hunted a lot and was always on the go on the land or sea somewhere. I was afraid that I would hear of his becoming lost in a small boat or that he had perhaps fallen through the ice while traveling somewhere by dog team. Many things, though imagined, have a real effect on one’s peace of mind.

While I was at the dorm I remember learning to pray. I didn’t learn to pray in the church, although we were forced to go to church and Sunday school this three times on Sunday. And if the Anglican priest from Happy Valley was visiting, for those of us who were confirmed in the Church of England, we also had to go to Holy Communion, making it four times on those Sundays.

Of course no one knew about my prayers, but when the lights would go out, I would lie back and silently ask God to watch over my mother and father, my grandmother and my little brother, and that He would keep all my brothers and sisters safe from harm. When I concluded with the Lord’s Prayer each night, I would reach over through the darkness, so no one would see me, and take the picture of my mother and father and place a kiss on each of their images. I would then trail off to sleep thinking ahead to the spring day in June when I would get back home once again to Rigolet into the comfort and safety of my family.


William H. (Bill) Flowers was born in Rigolet on the north coast of Labrador on Nov. 30, 1951. He was the sixth of eight children born to Gus and May Flowers. Bill finished Grade 8 in Rigolet in 1965 and had to leave his family to go to high school in North West River, Labrador at the age of thirteen. He was a student housed at the dormitory operated by the International Grenfell Association (IGA) until 1967. Bill lives in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

To learn more about the impact residential schools had on the Inuit, and to read more first-hand accounts, visit the website We Were So Far Away: The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools.

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