First Hand: Gloria Jensen and her Residential School Experience

Gloria’s dad Charles Elmer Jensen was born in Montana and did not speak Cree. Her mother Marie Margaret Hodgson was a First Nations girl from Fort Nelson who only spoke Cree and did not read or write English. When Margaret and Charles met; Charles did not speak Cree, however, over time, he learned. They were married and had nine children.

Charles moved to Fort Nelson because the trapping was bountiful. He made enough money to purchase a tug and barge. He then started a company hauling freight with his tug and barge; he hauled freight to Inuvik, Fort Simpson and Fort Liard from the Fort Nelson barge landing.

After Charles’ death, Gloria’s mom could not gain access to his estate and there were nine children to support, so the first year after his death, the family lived off wild meat, berries and plants they gathered and what had been grown in the garden.

When their dad was alive, the family attended the Alliance Church. After his death a local Catholic priest began to visit and suggested the children be baptized in the Catholic faith and that Margaret send some of the kids to school at the St. John the Baptist convent school in McLennan, Alberta. Today, McLennan is about a seven hour drive from Fort Nelson, back in the sixties, it would have taken about 12 hours or so on the bus.

In 1961, as Gloria’s mom could not read or write English, Gloria’s older sister Ruth sent Gloria and two of her brothers to convent school. Gloria was 7, William was 11 and David was 9. The children were sent on the bus to Donnelly corner, where the brothers from the St. John the Baptist convent school picked them up and took them to the convent. Gloria was sent to the girls’ dorms and her two brothers were sent to the boys dorms. The boys were not allowed to mix with the girls, so she didn’t see her siblings much. The language of the school was French, which the Jensen children did not speak. The children spoke Cree and English. She did learn to speak French during her five years at this school and forgot a lot of her Cree language. The nuns were the caregivers and supervisors of the children. The teachers, at the school, were from the local area. Gloria remembers the teachers being very nasty and cruel. She remembers being subject to slaps across the face and ear twisting and pulling if she scored less than 100 per cent on any test. After this treatment she was an honour roll student.

At mealtimes, the children were made to eat everything on their plate, no matter what the food was or how fresh it was. Porridge was the breakfast food that was served on weekdays and Saturdays. The porridge was not well-stored and contained dry worms, maggots and small insects. Sunday was rubber eggs and toast. According to Catholic tradition they were fed fish on Friday. She remembers one boy was allergic to milk and she remembers that the nuns forcing him to drink the milk in front of all the children.

When he regurgitated the milk, they made him eat it. Gloria’s daily chores consisted of making 52 beds, cleaning the toilets with old toothbrushes, always washing dishes and the children drying them, and doing the laundry. Ironing was done by each of the children and had to be done to perfection; pleats and creases. Gloria remembers doing a jumper nine times until it met with approval by nuns.

Saturday was cleaning day, the floors were stripped by the children, working on their hands and knees using a knife and a brush, and then re-waxed with paste wax. Then the older children would pull smaller children around on grey wool blankets to shine the floors. The following year and every year thereafter, Gloria remembers hating being sent away to school. She would fight and scratch her older sister, Ruth, as she was hauling her to the bus.

In 1962 Gloria was accompanied by her sister Alice then 6 years old, and her brother David. Her brother William refused to go back to school and ran away from home and hid. William never returned to the convent school.

In 1963, Gloria, along with two of her sisters Alice now 7 and Rita six rode the bus to the convent and were dropped off at the convent at one o’clock in the morning. Gloria knew what was expected and where to go, so she took her sisters up to the convent gate and rang the bell. Gloria was hugging one of her sisters to calm their crying, when the door was opened. The girls were both slapped around before being sent to their beds. Chapel was every morning at 6, and church every Sunday morning including confession, each child was made to go into the confessional. Her sister Rita says she couldn’t think of anything to confess so Rita lied and said she stole a banana to eat. They never got bananas at school.

Gloria remembers being woken by the ringing cow bell, and one morning it did not wake her. One of the nuns came to shake her awake and she couldn’t wake up. The nun shamed her by pointing out the condition of her clothes, her pajama bottoms were half way off, she remembers wondering why she couldn’t wake up.

From time to time, Gloria and her two sisters and a student named Danny W. from New Westminster, BC were taken out in a vehicle by one of the convent priests. This priest made them wear old eye glasses when they were with him. She remembers everything being blurry and not being able to see when wearing the glasses; Gloria believes the glasses had belonged to elderly deceased folks that had died in the hospital that was across the street from the convent.

On these drives the priest took them to Peace River, Falher and Sturgeon Lake churches pretending they were his helpers. He used to hold Gloria in an extended hard hug and Gloria remember him getting all sweaty and breathing hard and then he would leave the girls at whatever church they were at and disappear with Danny W. for about an hour. When they returned he would drive them back to the convent. After attending that school for five years, her mother re-enrolled her in the public school system in Fort Nelson. Gloria was happy to stay home.

She says she never let her anger over how they were treated at this school, take over her life. She believes telling her story will help people come to terms with their experiences and may protect others from similar happenings.

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