Sister Dorothy Moore
Sister Dorothy Moore’s family lived in Membertou—“the unknown section of Sydney at that time”—the entire time she was growing up. However, as a young girl, she ended up staying in a number of different communities to get an education. And that was an education in human nature—cruel and loving—as much as it was a conventional school education.
In her early years, she attended the one-room schoolhouse in Membertou. During that time, the Indian agent picked young Dorothy Moore to attend residential school in Shubenacadie. She was there for two years. “I don’t have happy memories of residential school,” she says. “But I survived it and it’s part of my history.” Some 75 years later, she still has vivid memories from that time, from being beaten with a ruler and a pointer on her first day in the classroom … to receiving a beautiful doll from her family for Christmas and never being allowed to hold it … to sitting alone outside the imposing structure and trying to remember the layout of her cozy home back in Membertou by sketching in the dirt with a stick.
“I was number 44,” says Sister Dorothy in her story. “There’s some things you don’t forget.”
After two years in Shubenacadie, she returned to Membertou, but the school there only went up to Grade 6, and Dorothy Moore was an intelligent girl who craved further learning. She ended up attending a new school in Eskasoni for Grade 7. But then she decided to return home and go to St. Joseph’s School in Sydney. No other Mi’kmaw student had attended a Sydney public school and her parents discouraged her from doing so. But she was headstrong. “I always say I was the first one to jump the … Membertou fence,” she says.
Grade 8 went well. But Grade 9 was a different story. In a dramatic incident Sister Dorothy recalls in her story, she was told to “go back to the backwoods where you belong” and was kicked out of school. But she persevered and found a spot at a boarding school in Mabou, where she stayed for two years. She returned to Sydney for her final year of school, becoming the first Mi’kmaw student to attend Holy Angels High School.
From there, Dorothy Moore became the first Mi’kmaw nun—again against her parents’ wishes. She went on to earn a teaching certificate, bachelor’s degrees in arts and education, and a master’s degree in education. She was a teacher and principal for decades, the native education co-ordinator at Cape Breton University and the provincial education department’s director of Mi’kmaw services.
Her honours include the Order of Nova Scotia, the Order of Canada, and three honorary degrees.
Sister Dorothy’s mother Mary Eliza Sylliboy was raised on a successful farm in Whycocomagh. But her father Noel Moore grew up poor. He and his mother were two of the approximately 125 people forced in the 1920s to move from Membertou’s original location along Sydney Harbour to its present location. Despite early struggles, he became a successful entrepreneur in the floor sanding business. And he remained fiercely proud of his culture and insisted his children speak Mi’kmaw. When he died while working at the age of 79 in 1974, Sister Dorothy said she became a “born-again Mi’kmaw” who has “never stopped working for my people.”
Today, at the age of 85, she lives alone in a duplex on Alexandra Street in Sydney, on Membertou’s doorstep. But the monthly planner she keeps next to her recliner is chock full, she’s on the road almost every day and she’s still working hard for her people.
I was born at Membertou in 1933. October 13th, 1933. Actually, we were two. We were twins and my twin passed on a few months later. But Membertou was the unknown section of Sydney at that time. So that’s where I was born and grew up there and went to school there. (Would you have been born at home?) No, no, I was born in the hospital.
(Was your twin a brother or a sister?) A little girl. We were born October, she died on Christmas Day, according to my mother’s telling me about that. (Did you know her name?) Mary Margaret. (And your full name?) Mary Dorothy. The funny thing is, in those days, the custom was the godparents would take the babies to church. They were the ones that were present for the baptism, not the parents. That was the custom in those days and that was more Church custom than the First Nation custom. My father had given instructions that one was to be called Clare, the other one was to be called Clara. They’re very close names. So when we were brought back, my parents were told, ‘This is Mary Margaret and this is Mary Dorothy.’ (Sister Dorothy chuckles.) Totally different. So the priest did not honour the names that my father had.
(Would that have been normal for the priest to override the parents’ wishes?) Oh yes. And I don’t know why because Clare was a saint’s name. However, it might have been the mood of the priest at the time.
(I know it was common, even among the Scottish people, to have more than one person in the family with the same first name. That was the case for you and your sister, too. You were both Mary.) I think in the Catholic Church, almost every girl had Mary in the name and almost every boy had Joseph in the name. If they didn’t have it at baptism, they had it at confirmation.
(But you always went by Dorothy?) Mmm hmm. I did, but when I entered religious life, I received a different name. Actually, it was my choice that I would be called Kateri. And so I was Sister Mary Kateri for a number of years in religious life until the late ’60s. I turned back to my baptismal name, Mary Dorothy.
(Kateri, she was an Indigenous saint?) That’s right. She was Kateri Takekwitha (1656-1680), which is the statue that I have there. Because of her devotion to God, I kind of emulated her. I think Kateri was a good choice because in religious life we chose a saint. A person would feel, ‘That’s a saint I’d like to follow or imitate or take an example of devotion to God.’ Something relating to that. Kateri for me really meant something positive. Because she was First Nation, I felt close to her, you know.
(Where was she based?) Kateri was from Montreal. I have visited her shrine in Kahnawake, which is near Montreal, and I still have great devotion to her. As a matter of fact, in the Catholic Church, we have novenas. We make novenas and we have very special intentions. Now I had a very, very special intention to pray to Kateri for. That was my niece. Unfortunately, she, for the second time, was told that cancer had come back. And she’s a young woman. She’s a teacher and very involved in church and school and the community and I really felt very bad for her and felt sad. So I prayed to Kateri and I made the novena to Kateri. Because she was not given a treatment. She was told that she could have this particular cancer treatment for $100,000. And where would that ever come from?
And I prayed, I prayed, I prayed, I prayed to Kateri to resolve it in a way that someone would come up with the response it’s going to be paid for. Now they have insurance, but the insurance would only pay for part of it. Then one morning I was sitting … I was praying and was praying with all my heart. I was praying that Kateri would respond to my plea for Sherise. Anyway, I’d just finished praying, got up from there to go get my breakfast and my cellphone rang. I answered. It was Sherise. She said, ‘They’re going to sponsor me.’ I just said, ‘That has to be a miracle. Kateri, thank you so much.’ You know, it’s amazing. I think a person’s belief and a person’s spirit and a person’s connection with God and prayer, that one day an answer comes. Certainly to me, I just felt that it was Kateri that answered my prayer.
(You pray in the morning before you have breakfast?) Every morning, yes. (So you would sit in the chair. What do you do? Would you bow your head or would you just close your eyes?) Well, I have a box over here and I start with this book (People’s Companion to the Breviary). It has psalms and readings and intentions. I can spend a fair bit of time doing my prayer in this. Each day has a special section for prayer. And after I’m finished with that, then I have this. Living with Christ. And in this are scripture prayers for the day. This is where I can spend a fair bit of time reflecting. I sit here, I read something, a certain passage may attract me and I can reflect on that for some time. It could be five minutes, it could be a half hour.
Then after I finish all that, then I have this book. This particular book, every month there’s a different one. What it does is explain the scripture for the day and it just gives a page of talking about that particular part of scripture. (What’s that one called?) It’s called The Word Among Us.
I light my candle. That gives me a feeling of connection, you know, lighting that candle. (You do that after you do your readings?) No, I do it during prayer. I light it before I start prayer and it stays lit during the whole time. (Is that a special candle?) No, it’s just a candle in a special (candle holder). It’s a gift that I got years ago. Actually, I got that on my 25th anniversary in religious life. So I’ve gone 25th, 50th, 60th and I’m on my way.
(Can you tell me a little bit about your parents?) I can say my parents provided for me in every possible way they could to make me who I am … to help me develop to who I am today. My mother was a stay-at-home mother like in those days. There were two brothers ahead of me and under me were two other brothers and three sisters. So that’s our whole family. My father was a hard-working man and he was a floor sander. He did floors here in Sydney and he was quite advanced.
Where is the picture in front with the car? There it is. Now, OK, you look at that. Would you say he was a man of extreme poverty? (No. He’s well-dressed.) Was he a man of wealth? Fairly well-to-do? (Yeah.) And look at the car. So from that picture, you would say that we were fairly well off because my father worked hard. Floor sanding in the early days was, I’m sure, very difficult. Very demanding and very lucrative obviously. So we were a family up at Membertou who were not in need as you could see from that picture.
One thing about my father, he never let one Sunday go by without piling us into that car and taking us down to Sacred Heart Church. Every Sunday. He was good in that way, bringing us up as good Catholics, as best he could.
And my mother was a terrific cook, of course, being a stay-at-home mum. In those days, that’s all women were, stay-at-home mums. Took care of all of us and fed us well. Kept us clean.
(What was your father’s name?) Noel Moore. Even to this day, I meet somebody somewhere and they say, ‘Was your father a floor sander?’ ‘Yes.’ And they would remember him doing floors for them. There’s one Sister in Antigonish and she has dementia. Yet every time she sees me, ‘How’s your father? He’s the nicest man.’ She’ll have all kinds of superlatives relating to my father. She recalls him doing floors for her home years ago and somehow it has cemented in her mind what my father was like. It’s still there and yet everything else is just a little bit not with it.
(Do you know how he got into that work?) I am not certain. But I would say that he went to work for a man called Mr. Wilson, who did floors in Sydney. And then I guess he saw where he could do it himself and he branched off. Started his own business. And when Dave grew up—he was ill at that time—he became a floor sander. And two other brothers became floor sanders as well. My last brother, who died about three years ago, he was a well-known floor sander here in Sydney. Barry Moore.
That was my father’s work and he died doing that work. He dropped dead just like that in North Sydney, doing the floors at a high school—I think it was a high school—in 1974. (Did he take a heart attack?) A massive heart attack. He was at his machine. Yeah, he was 79 years, still working. (Is that right? Wow.) Yeah, he was still working. He was very committed to his work.
(And he would do the sanding and the varnishing?) Mmm hmm. All of that he used to do. His hands would be just as hard as that (Sister Dorothy raps her knuckles on the table). Calluses.
(What was your mother’s name?) Her maiden name was Sylliboy and she came from Whycocomagh. Mary Eliza Sylliboy was her name.
(Was your dad from Membertou originally?) Originally from Eskasoni and then moved to Sydney. Actually, it wasn’t Membertou at that time. It was the Kings Road Reserve. He and his mother (Mary Anne Noel) lived there. And when the time came for all of them to vacate that area—that location—they moved up to Membertou. Our home is still up at Membertou. (The original home?) The original home. My sister lives there now. (Do you know what year that would’ve been built?) Nineteen twenty-seven, twenty-eight. I think it was 1929 when he moved up there. It was about that time where everybody from Kings Road Reserve relocated there.
(Would he ever talk about what happened there or how they felt or what they went through?) The amazing thing about my parents—and I think it’s not only unique to my parents, I think it’s very much a custom of our people—they did not talk about the past. Now I am forever thinking about how much I have lost not hearing any stories about the past relating to my father. Because my father was brought up very, very poor. As a matter of fact, someone has said that in the real early days my father lived in a wigwam with his mother.
My father, you know, you often wonder how come he’s got the name Moore. I don’t know if you were wondering that. (That would be considered an English name?) Well, his mother had him out of wedlock and his father was from North Sydney. So when he was baptized, the mother’s maiden name was Noel and the father was Moore. So he became Noel Moore. That’s how his name came about. People wonder, ‘How come Moore? What does Moore come from, being Mi’kmaw?’ Well, that’s where his name comes from.
Anyway, he was very poor. Very, very poor. And he learned ways of survival. He did mention one time having to sell clothes poles. In those days, way back, people had clotheslines and they had these clothes poles (for propping up the clothesline). Apparently, he worked hard getting some clothes poles and he started going around trying to sell the clothes poles and he wasn’t very successful, I guess, and he just threw them aside. Then he has done a number of things, you know, to try to survive. And he even went out West apparently by train—hitchhiking by train—and he didn’t fare off too well out West and came back home. I just have snippets of things in his past, but not too many.
My mother, she grew up in a farm in Whycocomagh and it was quite a progressive farm that her father had. Her father was a brother to the grand chief at that time, Gabriel Sylliboy. Anyway, she grew up in a good family background and she worked in Truro. She worked at a home—a fairly well-to-do home—and the good thing about her experiences in working in that home was all the proper things, you know. She was a beautiful cook. I don’t know if she learned it at home or if she learned it when she was working in Truro. Or maybe a combination of both. But she was a beautiful cook and baker. A beautiful baker. And it was very important that when we set the table, that the fork, the knife was the way it should be … she knew all the different things that we didn’t care about. It didn’t mean anything to us.
So I think their backgrounds were quite different and yet coming together as husband and wife, the combination was, I think, pretty darn good. (Do you know how they met or where they met?) I don’t know how they met but I think my father met her in Whycocomagh. See those are the little stories we don’t know and now I reflect back and say, ‘Where did they meet? How long did they know each other? Where did they get married?’ You know, those questions nobody will answer.
(Do you know why they wouldn’t have talked about the past?) No, I have no idea, I just wish it could have happened. Now when my mother boarded students from CBU (Cape Breton University), they would come and say, ‘Oh, your mother is telling us so many stories.’ I’m saying, ‘Why didn’t I hear them?’ So I don’t even know what those stories were, but the students seemed to have enjoyed all the stories that my mother would tell of her past. (Was it maybe just because she was older and she had more time?) I don’t know. I just wonder, were they afraid that we would get to know them too well? Or that we had no right to know their past or anything like that? I don’t know the reason. But I think every one of my siblings can say the same thing—that they have not heard too much about the past of my parents.
(Your grandmother gave your father that name Moore. Was that a brave thing to do, basically to say to the world, ‘This was his father’s name?’) I don’t know. I can’t answer that at all. I have no idea. (And you wouldn’t have had any connection with that family?) I don’t know who he is. One time I was speaking in North Sydney, talking about the development of the First Nation programs at CBU that I was involved in. I was a guest speaker of the Kiwanis … luncheon speaker. And after I finished speaking, a gentleman in the front said, ‘I would never know that you were an Indian just by the way you’re dressed.’ What preconception did he have of what an Indian looked like? I said, ‘Yes I am.’ And maybe I was a little bold in saying this, ‘My father’s father came from here in North Sydney. I could be related to you.’ He didn’t say another word. (Laughter).
(Would you have any memories of any of your grandparents?) Just on my mother’s side. Oh yeah, very aware of them, going to the farm in Whycocomagh. (You would go in your father’s car?) Oh yeah. We’d get piled in the car. My brother Dave used to own a garage just as you enter Prime Brook there. Dave Moore’s Autobody. That was his garage. But anyway, he used to be fairly ill in the early days and my father would pile us all in the car—we weren’t that many in the beginning—and we’d go to Whycocomagh. Dave was spending time there recuperating. He remembers times when he would go down to the brook, fish and all of that. They had a big farm, apple orchard, a big garden, animals. And so I got to know my grandparents fairly well even though I was just a little girl at that time.
And then centralization came, when the government moved the people from Whycocomagh to Eskasoni. So their farm had to be left behind and everything about the farm. They had no choice. They were pushed to move out of Whycocomagh. It was the way of the government at that time. Their idea was to not have all these little different reserves but to centralize the Indians. Get them out of these little reserves and put them in one big reserve. They did that here in Cape Breton and they did the same thing in the mainland. So that was the end of their farming days. My grandparents lived in Eskasoni and died in Eskasoni. Both of them passed away after I entered religious life in 1954.
(OK, so they must have been fairly elderly?) I don’t think they were any more elderly than I am today. (Laughter). I mean, I’m 85, so …
(Your brother Dave, he was sick when he was young?) Yeah. He was ill for a number of years when he was small. I think they classified him as having TB. I remember at home, there was a front porch onto our house. There was no heat. That’s where his room was. And it was cold, cold as can be, you know, because in those days the TB patients were in cold rooms. It was the way of curing. However, he was cured of all that and he’s going to be 89 in a couple of weeks. He just lives up here in Topshee Drive and he goes to dialysis three times a week. (He wouldn’t have gone to a sanatorium?) No. Between home and Whycocomagh, that’s where he did all his resting and being taken care of.
(Would they have used any traditional medicine with him?) Yes, they did. I still remember the man who would come and make the medicine or bring the medicine. His name was Bob Paul and they do credit him for curing him. (Do you know what it was?) All I know is that it was brown. It was made from some roots or bark of some tree. (Would he have drunk that?) Yes.
(What were your grandparents’ first names?) My grandmother was Elizabeth and my grandfather was John. She was a Christmas. Her brother was Ben Christmas. You must have heard about Ben Christmas? He used to be chief in Membertou years ago. (Was he a singer as well?) Yes, he sang all the Mi’kmaw hymns.
(Your grandparents, when they were moved to Eskasoni, did you witness anything about what that meant to them?) No, in those days, when you were young, you don’t think about those things. Today I think about them. No, you just go with the flow because there were so many people moved at that time. Everybody was experiencing the same thing. No doubt they had a lot of hardships beginning a new life in Eskasoni.
(Because they were established in Whycocomagh?) Oh yeah. They had a beautiful big farm and my grandmother was a basket maker. She would come to Sydney by train, from Orangedale to Sydney. Big sheet full of baskets and she would go around Sydney peddling. She would stay at my mother’s place—at home—while she would be doing all that. That’s how she made her money for her family. And back on the train she’d go. Back home.
(She would have them in a bedsheet?) Yes. She had them in a certain way. They packed them. Oh yes, they’d come off the baggage car. (And would she have that over her shoulder?) Oh yes. Over her shoulders or just carrying them, you know.
(Is that something you ever saw her do?) Oh yeah, I saw her do that and I saw her bring them in. (Is that a skill that you picked up on at all?) Basket making? (Sister Dorothy laughs). No. I’ve tried. I paint. That picture over there and that one over here and that one. I’ve made cards. I’m just doing Christmas cards. I’ll show you a couple of cards that I just got made. I call myself recycled. People say, ‘Aren’t you retired?’ And I say, ‘Yes I am, but I’m recycled.’ Now I’m going to send Christmas cards that are also recycled. Those are just copies of ones that I’ve made.
(That’s beautiful. You did that?) Oh yeah. I look at it and I say, ‘My God, I did that? Where did I get all the patience?’ Which I don’t think I have any more. What I used to do is—I don’t give gifts—I used to make one card for each of my family. And they used to treasure them.
(Did you have that from an early age, the drawing?) Yeah. I always liked drawing, even in our little school at Membertou. It was a one-room school. When you have primary or Grade 1 to Grade 6 in the classroom with a number of different children there, you have spare time. So I used to draw a lot. I used to have a book, you know, and I’d draw little pictures in the corner. I don’t know if you ever heard of that. Little pictures in the corner and you’d go from one page, you’d draw another little picture and you’d draw another picture. After a while when you’ve drawn a whole lot, then you flip it like this and it’s like a movie. (Laughter).
(You did that?) Oh yeah, pass the time. They’re just little characters. (Would you have to kind of hide that?) No, no. You had erasers, so …
(So you went to school in Membertou up to Grade 6?) Yes, up to Grade 6. And that was the end of it because we didn’t go any further than that. Most people, once they reached Grade 6, that was the end of their schooling.
Now, when I reached Grade 6, I didn’t want to leave. So I was just dilly-dallying in the school and the teacher, Miss Gallagher, was having me help the little ones. And then the Indian agent came one time and said, ‘Why don’t you go to Eskasoni? They have Grade 7 in Eskasoni. A new school has just started.’ At the centralization time, a new school had been built and they had Grade 7, 8, 9. So I went to Eskasoni and went to school there for a few months and stayed with my aunt and uncle. I had to catch up on so much and did all my work. Kerosene lamps in those days.
I came back home after Grade 7. And still, what was I going to do? Not going back to Eskasoni. So I went to town. I was the first one to enter public school in town. I always say I was the first one to jump the fence—Membertou fence—and I went to school at St. Joseph’s School. I was the first Mi’kmaw to go into the town school. My parents did not want me to go there.
(Is that right?) Yeah, they said, ‘No, you don’t belong there.’ Nobody has ever done anything like that because being controlled by the government kind of sets you up to depriving from moving forward. And the government is still like that in a sense. But it was in my heart. I knew some kids here in Alexandra Street and I envied them going to school. Not too many people would say, ‘I’m envious of people going to school.’ Especially when you’re a young person. But I did really envy them. They knew I wanted to go to school and they leant me books—second-hand books—and so I started at St. Joseph’s School. And I got along very, very well in Grade 8. It was difficult because if my parents said, ‘You don’t belong there,’ they were not going to support me 100 percent. So it was a struggle to go through that Grade 8 time, but I got through. I had a wonderful teacher who was very understanding and so I moved to Grade 9 from there.
In Grade 9, it was another story. I had different teachers and not as kind at all as my Grade 8 teacher. One day, I had the misfortune of not doing my homework and the reason why I did not do my homework was I didn’t understand what paraphrasing meant. See, I’m a Mi’kmaw speaker at that time and I’m still not too fluent in English, even though I did learn to speak English at the residential school. We’ll go back to the residential school after I’ve finished with this.
So Grade 9—I’m with the same group of girls—this particular day I did not do my homework and I’m summoned up to the front of the classroom and I know she’s going to do something to me. And when she goes to reach her hands to grab me, I stepped back and knocked the table over. And that angered her—I say that angered her—to a point where she said, ‘You go back to the backwoods where you belong.’ Those words are so imprinted in my mind. I will never forget them, when she said, ‘You go back to the backwoods where you belong, and I don’t want to see you again.’ Now I can say I was the first one to go to city school and the first Mi’kmaw to get kicked out of school. So I came home. And my parents’ response was, ‘We told you so. Now you fend for yourself. Get a job.’ And so I did. I worked at Hubley’s Dry Cleaners, downtown Sydney, for some months, supporting myself. But I did live at home.
(Can you say how old you were at that time?) At that time I was about 16. (What work would you have been doing at the dry cleaners?) I was in the very back of the dry cleaning and whenever a piece of clothing did not get cleaned in the dry cleaning, it was given to me to wash by hand. That was my job. Anyway, I had the good fortune of meeting up with my Grade 8 teacher and she asked me what I was doing. I told her. ‘Would you like to go back to school?’ Of course, I would love to go back to school. And she said, ‘Well, I’ll make arrangements for you to go to Mabou.’ It was a boarding school. And so the following September, that’s where I went. I went there for Grade 9 and Grade 10. Got along very well.
Then decided to go back to Sydney town school and went to Holy Angels Convent. Again, the first Mi’kmaw to go into Holy Angels. And again, I had to fend for myself pretty well. I made some money. I did weekend scrubbing floors in some homes. I was cleaning. In that way, I made some money for bus fare, which I needed badly.
Anyway, I survived Grade 11 until the end of the year when I was told, ‘You’re not going to write provincials because we don’t think you’ll be successful in algebra and geometry.’ Which was very true. Very true. So I thank God for a friend, Dolores Campbell. She asked if she could tutor me and the nuns said yes. She tutored me and I wrote provincials. They used to publish those names in the newspaper. When I saw my name in the newspaper that I had passed provincials, it was one of the happiest days of my life. This was going to be my—I don’t know what word I could use—but this was going to open the door for me to my life’s choice, my life’s dream, to enter a religious order. To be a nun.
With Grade 11, I was more secure. Now, I wasn’t young. I’m 20 years of age. For my father, this type of a life—this lifestyle of being a religious—was so foreign. Foreign to both of them, actually, and their response to it was, ‘No, you are not going. You are not going.’ And, of course, for me, that’s so much a part of what I want to be, what I want to do in my life. Granted, that’s the unknown for me too. But I say it’s not my doing. It’s God’s doing. For some reason I am called to this life because God wants me there. But my parents kept saying, ‘No, you’re not going.’
And one day, I said to my father, ‘You know, I’m almost 21 years of age and I’m going to be able to go on my own without your permission once I’m 21. But I would prefer if you gave me your permission to go—that you OKed it.’ And he said to me, ‘Alright, you write the letter and I’ll sign it.’ So I wrote my own letter of application to the Sisters of St. Martha and my father signed it. And so I went in. For me, it would have to be the happiest, most fulfilling day of my life, the day I went up those steps and entered the Sisters of St. Martha. That’s about 64 years ago.
I don’t think my father really accepted … in fact, I know he didn’t accept. Even the day he drove my mother and me up to Antigonish, he didn’t come in. He didn’t come in the building. So that was OK. I think he accepted it afterwards since I persevered in staying. I didn’t come home. As a matter of fact, he was afraid I would come home. Whatever it would cause him—the way he would feel if I came home—I don’t know. But he said to me, ‘So help me, if you come home, I’m going to chase you all the way back to Port Hawkesbury.’ (Laughter). Because in those days there was no causeway. That wasn’t the reason why I stayed. I did stay and did persevere and did become who I am today and continue to strive to live as best I can, being a Sister of St. Martha.
(The Mi’kmaw people had a long history of being strong Catholics. Why would he discourage you from becoming a nun? Were those two different things?) ‘Who are they?’ That’s the question. ‘Who are they?’ Nobody knows them, really, because you don’t see them. You see them in church. You see them maybe walking down the street, you know. They’re just the unknown, I suppose. If somebody came in from the Congo, around here, you’d be wondering, ‘How does that person operate?’ I don’t know. I just know that it was a very difficult thing for them to accept that I would be a religious. The custom was you grow up, you get married, you start your family. That was just the way.
(You were an intelligent, attractive young woman. There’s no reason why you couldn’t follow that custom, right?) That’s right and I didn’t. (Would you have had boyfriends?) Oh yes. As a matter of fact, when I entered, there was somebody who said he would wait. He died. I did have boyfriends. No, my calling was to be a religious. My calling was to be a religious and enter a religious community and serve God through a religious community and serve my people. At that time, I didn’t know I’d be serving my people so much as I am up to this point. And as I mentioned before, I did go to residential school when I was going to school at Membertou. Several of us girls were chosen by the Indian agent to go to a residential school in Shubenacadie and so I went there for two years. I don’t have happy memories of residential school. But I survived it and it’s part of my history.
(Do you know why you and the other girls were picked or how that worked?) There were a large number of us picked by the Indian agent from Membertou. I’ve seen the list since and one of my brothers is listed there—or maybe two—amongst the group. In the end, four or five girls were picked to go. I don’t know how they chose them. Anyway, I was one of the ones that went.
(Do you think it may be because they saw potential in grades or something like that?) I don’t think they looked at those things. Nah. If they could get five, all the better, because the purpose of residential school was to remake us. Forget the Mi’kmaw language. Forget the culture. Forget how we are, how we live and how we think. Change us. And believe me, I think they did everything possible to try to change us. For one thing, they’ve taken away the language. The government was very successful in that. The thing that identifies us Mi’kmaw people is our language and that is diminishing so fast that one day—it may not be too long—the language will not be spoken by anyone. They’re very few right now. If you go to Membertou, very, very few speak the language. A few of the elders speak it fluently. You go to the mainland, a handful maybe.
(Is that right?) Yeah. The farther west you go, the fewer. You may find one or two elders that have knowledge of the language and speak it.
(I thought I heard there was immersion in Eskasoni?) There’s immersion going on in Eskasoni from kindergarten to Grade 4. I think they’re trying to move it up to Grade 5 and 6. I’m not sure if they’ve done it yet. That may be a saving factor for a pocket of people. Because, again, many of our people feel that having the Mi’kmaw language is going to be detrimental to your progress, to your success in education, in careers. (People still have that same sense?) Yeah. I would call it fear.
(There’s studies that show that being bilingual in whatever languages is an advantage academically.) It’s an advantage. It could be to the minds of many of our people, it’s a disadvantage.
I speak both languages now. I can’t claim that I’ve been fluent all my life in the Mi’kmaw language. When I taught out West, I had no communication in Mi’kmaw for two years. And you lose it fast. I did anyway. I remember coming home after two years out West. My father met me. He was so happy I was home. And I was speaking English like I didn’t have a care in world. I spoke English. I didn’t even think about Mi’kmaw. And he said, ‘Now, you’re under my roof, now speak Mi’kmaw.’ I couldn’t. I started to cry. I said, ‘Give me time, give me time.’ I say I speak it fluently and have the opportunity to speak it when I’m at Membertou with the elders.
(Would that have been your first language?) Oh yeah, absolutely. (Would there have been any English in your home as a young child or would that have come with school?) It was all Mi’kmaw. Everything. And English in the school. But you heard English and you tried to read in English, but it really didn’t have a connection. It really didn’t have any importance because as soon as you stepped out of the school, it was all Mi’kmaw. In fact, it was all Mi’kmaw in the classroom if you spoke to one another. The only one who spoke English was the teacher, and she was the foreigner. She was the foreigner and she never did learn to speak Mi’kmaw even though she taught there for 49 years.
(Would she have discouraged the students speaking it?) No, I don’t recall that at all. (Not there?) No, no. I guess it would be overpowering for her because everybody in the school that came in spoke Mi’kmaw and we played all our games in Mi’kmaw.
(Do you remember learning English?) I knew very little English. I knew ‘yes,’ ‘no.’ I guess I just knew the basic English that I needed to know. I don’t even recall that too much. It was only in residential school when speaking Mi’kmaw was connected with punishment and you learned to speak some kind of English—understandable to others—because you fear punishment.
And by the time I came home the first summer, I was so absolutely proud of myself. So proud of myself that I was speaking English and I was a different person. I was not Indian. I was speaking English and I would go downtown and I would speak English real loud. Being Indian, I would be noticed that I’m speaking English. However, my father, being who he was, was so insulted that I could only speak English. I wouldn’t speak Mi’kmaw. And he said to me, ‘If you don’t start speaking Mi’kmaw, you are not going anywhere. You are not leaving this house. You are not going to Eskasoni where you like to go to visit. You are not going anywhere until you speak Mi’kmaw.’ Guess what? (You started speaking it.) I spoke Mi’kmaw. And when I think back now, I’m happy that he was so insistent on us speaking Mi’kmaw because surely that’s who we are, you know?
(Where did that strength of character come from in him?) Just his life, his whole life. Being a Mi’kmaw. ‘We are who we are and we’re going to remain who we are.’ I think that may have been his thinking. I would say he took such pride in being who he was, and I’ve said that so often. He took such pride in being who he was and what he represented and in the culture, in the traditions, in the language. Nobody was going to take that away from him and he did not want his children to forget who they were.
In 1974, I first went to Eskasoni to teach. It was the first time I would have had an opportunity to teach my own people. I had been teaching since 1958. And when he heard I was coming back to Eskasoni, he was so proud. He said, ‘You’re back with us.’ ‘Yes, I’m back with you.’ I was so proud. And that very first day in Eskasoni, going to teach, I came home at lunchtime and the priest came over to the convent to tell me that my father died. I’ll never forget that day. I thought I was going to die myself. I couldn’t believe it because my father was never sick and I’d just talked to him the night before and he was so happy that I was back. It’s that very day I said, ‘How am I going to continue my father’s life?’
That’s when I say I became a born-again Mi’kmaw. And as true as I’m sitting here, as they would say, I have never stopped working for my people. I taught in Eskasoni. I was the principal is Eskasoni. I then developed cancer. Somehow, thanks be to God, I was cured of that and then went to study some more.
And went to CBU after I came back and began working with the students—Mi’kmaw students. At that time, there was nothing in the university that even recognized the fact that there were Mi’kmaq around. My role was mostly volunteer. I had acquired a master’s degree in educational psychology and I went there. Father Greg MacLeod had asked me, ‘Come and see if you can save our students.’ There were only nine Mi’kmaw students and they were struggling, struggling, struggling. And so when I went. I struggled with them because there was nothing available to them.
One of the things I did was ask if we could have something in the syllabus that would relate to our history, our culture, our language. I said, ‘If you want to draw Mi’kmaw students to this university, you’ll have to have something to draw them.’ So the dean said to me, ‘Alright, develop it.’ My goodness, that’s what I get for opening my big mouth. I was so determined to have something in there. Without background of how do you develop a university course.
I went to Ottawa, got a whole lot of information from public archives, from Indian and Northern Affairs, and brought stuff home and started developing the course. And all of this was volunteer. The university didn’t pay my way to Ottawa or didn’t pay my way while I’m in Ottawa. And I developed the course and I presented it. So they gave me a half course. I said, ‘How in the name of God are they going to get the other half course? There’s nothing here that relates to who we are.’ So I went back, and I said, ‘If I can get someone’—it’s my determination, my stubbornness—‘to teach Mi’kmaw, would you consider that as the other half course?’ ‘Yes.’
So I got Bernie Francis (a Mi’kmaw linguist). Well, who could you get better than Bernie Francis? A good friend of mine. He came and he taught Mi’kmaw. So that became our first full course at CBU and that’s all we needed was one course and it drew students in. I always take pride in the fact that within a few years—two or three, four years—we had over 200 students. And then courses started to expand and more courses. And today, they have Unama’ki College (at CBU), so it’s continuing to grow. It’s like you throw a pebble in the water, it makes a ripple. It’s still rippling, it’s still rippling.
(Do you know what year that would have been when you first developed that half course?) Eighty-five, eighty-six. I was there 10 years. I left there in ’95. I saw some of the graduates that were coming out of university. Some were going to law school, some to social work, some to teachers’ education. They were moving on and I felt, ‘Well, now this person (Patrick Johnson) who has walked with me all the way—while he was being educated—now he has got his degree, now he can take my place because he knows. He knows the system, he knows the university, he knows the kids.’ So he took my place and I said, ‘Well, I want to get one last good kick at the can.’ And the Department of Education was advertising for a position—native adviser or something like that. I don’t know what the title was. Anyway, I applied, I got it and the very first thing I did there was to develop history. There was nothing in the provincial curriculum that had Mi’kmaw history.
(This would have been provincewide?) Mmm hmm. And so I chose a number of Mi’kmaw educators. Brought them to Halifax and together we worked on developing the curriculum for the Grade 10 history course. And I got Dr. Jeff Orr from St. F.X. University to work with us. And so that course was born. And it still continues to be on the curriculum, but it has been revised, which is only right. Time changes and revisions have taken place. And now, I think, the Department of Education says that anyone who takes that particular history course satisfies the obligation to have a history course in high school. So that’s a plus. (Would that have been an elective course?) Mmm hmm. I believe it still is, but it’s strongly recommended that students take it. So I left there 2002 and Membertou wanted me to work as well in education. So I did and I told them, ‘I’m not going to work five days, no way.’ ‘Well, how many days do you want to work?’ I said three. So they were open to three days a week. It wasn’t difficult. I was more adviser and it was simple in comparison to working for the government. So I stayed and two years ago I left that position. And now I’m … I suppose I can say freelancing. So I’m free as can be.
(But still very active?) Yeah, I’m still involved in like tripartite education, Mi’kmaw language, different things at Membertou that go on and seeing the advisory council in Truro. Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq. I’ve been on for about 13 years now and the advisory council for the Debert project. Have you heard of Debert project? (Is that like a living museum?) Yeah, eventually it will be. I don’t know if I’ll be alive when it starts. But it’s been ongoing and it’s going to be a reality. I know it will be a reality one day when they’ve reached their goal of what it will take to put the building up, money-wise. Nova Scotia government is very supportive. We went to Ottawa sometime in the summertime to meet with some government officials in Ottawa, hoping that maybe they will match. Nova Scotia government has put up $11 million dollars and maybe we’ll be successful in getting the Canadian government to match that. That would be a huge step.
(When you went to residential school, how old would you have been?) Ten. (Do you remember how you got there?) Yes, I remember that very, very well. My mother took us. My mother was assigned by the government to take these girls to Shubenacadie. We went by train and I do recall leaving Sydney in the nighttime and we travelled all night and arrived at Shubenacadie in the morning. And I remember walking from the station up to the building that was up on the hill, which was the residential school. And for a 10-year-old, you know, I didn’t realize totally what it was all about. It was just exciting to go on the train. Exciting, you know. This all-new thing and then going up to that big building. And what is it? I had no idea what the residential school was. I had absolutely no idea. So we were deposited there. My mother left.
Somewhere amongst my souvenirs, I have a copy of the paper that says that Mrs. Eliza Moore—or Mrs. Noel Moore—took these girls by train. And she was paid for doing that, which would have taken a couple of days for her because she had to come back by train—$19. That was her salary. (And it wasn’t just you. It was the other girls?) Oh yeah, it was taking all of us. The responsibility of taking all of us.
Anyway, the residential school, I look back and I suppose I could use the word ‘bewildered.’ I say ‘bewildered’ because of the size. I’m coming from a small home and then seeing these long hallways, big doors. A huge place. I do remember the first assignment. I don’t recall too many things and maybe it’s a gift from God that I don’t recall too many things relating to the first few hours there. But I do recall the next day being put to work. Now 10 years old, I’m on my knees washing floors. And the floor is concrete. Fine, fine, fine concrete floor. It’s a finished floor, but I know it’s concrete or cement or whatever it’s called. I do recall how hard it was.
And I do recall the first day in the classroom—how terrible it was because I did not understand how to do division, whatever that word was even. No idea. And my language was pretty skimpy. I suppose I know ‘yes,’ ‘no.’ And so every mistake I made, I got the side of the ruler on my hands. So it was continuous mistakes, because I didn’t understand it at all. So my hand was just so swollen.
We worked half day, we went to school half day. That was child labour, really, when you look back. And by work, I mean, you would work in the laundry. Huge machines. And when I think of myself, a little girl, that big, big tumbler—washer—and hauling all these clothes out of there and putting them in the dryer or the wringer. I do recall the huge machinery. Anyway, that was the laundry. Girls went into the kitchen. They spent afternoons darning socks and another time cleaning somewhere.
It was half day of work, half day of school. Now that morning I would have been relieved in the afternoon not to have to go to school. All my classmates went to work. I was told to come back to the classroom and this time I was up at the board. And every time I made a mistake—I continued to make mistakes—she had a long pointer, I would get a bang in the head. That was a very cruel day. And I’ll never forget it. I couldn’t even comb my hair, if there was even a comb to comb my hair. (You mean your head was that sore?) Mmm hmm. My head was so sore. And of course, my hand was just so swollen and bruised. That was my experience of the first day in the classroom. I don’t recall any other very difficult days in the classroom. There were other difficult times in the school, you know, but not so hurtful as that. I did learn to speak English, like I said. And so darn proud of it.
(When you were going to school half days and working half days, what was first? Was school first and then work or work and then school?) Well, it depends on your grade, I guess. Whichever way it worked, if you went to school in the afternoon, you had worked in the morning, or vice versa. (So, in other words, there were kids working all the time?) That’s right. Yeah, and different levels of work. I did learn to sew. Like you made clothes. You made shirts for boys. I did learn to sew. I did learn to darn. I did learn to make the bed really nice or else you’d be punished. I learned to do some things that I’m still doing today. But it was a hard way to learn.
(Is there anything positive there?) Well, I think, yeah, learning things. I learned to read. I did learn to sew, like really sew and using a sewing machine. I learned to make things. In fact, I was able to make a lot of my own clothes, especially after we moved from habits to regular clothing. And I would say I learned all that from residential school, knowing how to sew. Knowing how to darn, knowing how to knit—although I don’t knit today—and I suppose general housekeeping. You learn to do all of that.
Now, I never went into the kitchen. I guess I wasn’t old enough to go into the kitchen. Older girls would have gone into the kitchen. I’m sure they learned some basic things in the kitchen. And you sure know how to dust. (Sister Dorothy laughs). And I remember one time being told to stand on these big, big windows and kill flies. You know, in the fall the flies start coming in. And I had an envelope in my hand, killing the flies, putting them in. When I think of it today, how terrible that is. But anyway, you did things like that. And you certainly knew what obedience was. Because if you did not obey, you got punished. Oh, there were so many different things. But I think I learned some things and I’m left with some negative memories as well.
(They talk about at residential school, the people had numbers. Did you have a number?) Mmm hmm, 44. I was number 44. (You still remember that?) Mmm hmm, oh yeah. There’s some things you don’t forget. (Would they use that?) Well, your clothes had number 44 on them. (So no names?) No name. Just 44.
(You were there two years?) Two years. (Was there loneliness for your family?) I went home in the summertime and my family sent me back the second year as well. Maybe my father thought my English wasn’t good enough. (Sister Dorothy laughs). I don’t know.
(You went home in the summer, but you were 10. Coming from a close-knit community, do you remember loneliness?) At residential school? Oh, indeed I did. And the loneliest time was you’re hearing the train whistle at nighttime. Oh my gosh. And you heard that every night, the train whistle. If anything is going to make you lonely, it’s a train whistle. (Why was that, do you think?) I think it has a lonely sound. And it could be my experience of coming to residential school on the train. You heard it all the time. I don’t know. But I do know that hearing it in the nighttime was a lonely time.
Sometimes when I’d be outside, I’d be sitting on the bench by myself and I would just have a little stick or something and I would draw how I remember my house. The inside of the house and where this table would be. You know, different things. Just going back home through my drawings. Yeah, there were a lot of times when you’d be lonely.
I think Christmastime … that was the loneliest time. (Sister Dorothy pauses). Loneliest time. My parents did send me a parcel and they would have candy and goodies in it. I remember the first year, they sent me a snowsuit. As you see in the picture, they would have the means to do things like that. And I got a snowsuit. Now I was able to wear the snowsuit, but it wasn’t a good experience having a snowsuit when the kids had winter clothes—winter snowsuits—made out of army clothing. The Sister didn’t look upon this as being a good thing. I felt it and I knew it. She was mean to me all the time and so it wasn’t a good thing to have a good snowsuit from home.
(It was like, ‘Do you think you’re better than other people?’) Exactly, yeah. Mmm hmm. The next year for Christmas, I got a doll and the doll was beautiful. It was a big doll and it even had a winter jacket and a hat. And I was not allowed to have it. For a girl, having a doll is just so precious, eh? Now that doll sat in the dormitory in a corner in a chair. I never did hold the doll. I often think about that. Even if they had a heart, they would say, ‘Take the doll to bed with you.’ But there was none of that. I don’t know. I don’t know how people could just stay so cold. They distanced themselves from humanity.
(Those experiences, when you became a teacher, was that in the back of your mind?) Absolutely, absolutely, because it never left my mind to know what it felt like to be in a classroom where you were punished for not understanding. You were punished for dropping a book accidentally. Whatever it might be. In all my teaching, I can honestly say I never laid a hand on a child. There were ways of working with a child other than physical punishment or embarrassment.
I taught kindergarten some time in Eskasoni, which I loved. You know, you have these little five-year-olds, cute as can be. Many of them now today are principals, teachers or they’re way up there. But anyway, how do you discipline a child that’s just not going to do what you want or they’re mean to other kids or they’re doing things? So I devised a no-no chair. I had a little chair that I put in the corner. So when a child misbehaved, they had to sit in the no-no chair. And that no-no chair—honest to goodness—they just didn’t want to be near there. Because you sit in the no-no chair, you’re facing the corner and it’s really something.
When I was working at CBU, I had a cultural day where I brought in a number of people to help us. For example, I had Dr. Granny Johnson—basket-making—and I had Rita Joe and a number of people that came to do the cultural day for us. Anyway, Mrs. Johnson had a grandson bring her in with her baskets and so on. She was asking him, ‘Do you know Sister?’ And he said, ‘Yes … does she still have a no-no chair?’ (Laughter). He was an adult.
You can be successful. I did so many creative things with children. And every once in a while, I meet somebody, and they say, ‘Do you remember, Sister, when we did this?’ Of course I remember, you know. Just a couple of weeks ago, somebody in Halifax—I was at a little presentation—and this lady came over to me and she said, ‘I’m so and so. You were my teacher in kindergarten and now I’m teaching Grade 9 in Truro somewhere.’ Anyway, she said, ‘Oh, I remember the pumpkin jam we made in school.’ And these were little kindergartens.
So we had pumpkin. Took the guts out of it and then took all the seeds and took them home. Baked them, brought them back, and we ate the seeds. So this is still part of the pumpkin. And then carved a jack-o-lantern, so they all saw that. Then after that, cut it all up. Of course, I told them I was going to cut it up because it was hard to cut up. We had a hot plate in the classroom. Brought a pot of the pumpkin and cooked it. And my sister—who used to have children, babies—saved a lot of these little jars that they used to have. Baby food jars. So I got a haul of the baby food jars. And when the pumpkin jam was all cooked and everything, then each one of them took some home. So this lady remembered the pumpkin jam we made.
(How does that make you feel when you hear stories like that?) It makes me feel so good, you know. And one day somebody said to me, ‘Sister, I’ll never forget the day I came into the classroom and we were all sitting down, and you were standing in the front and you started speaking to us in Mi’kmaw. I’ll never forget that. I never knew a teacher could speak Mi’kmaw.’ That was way back. Now we have a lot of Mi’kmaw teachers.
Oh yeah, I still remember a lot of children who said different things. One class of kids, we would sit around in the circle in the morning and sing all these nursery rhymes. In those days, they were all in English. Today, they’ve translated them. And I said, ‘Now, what am I hearing?’ They were all singing their little hearts out. I said, ‘Now, I’m not going to sing. You’re going to sing for me this time. You’ve got such good voices. Would you sing Baa Baa Black Sheep?’ ‘OK.’ They sang, ‘Baa baa black shit, have you any war? Yes sir, yes sir, two by four.’ (Laughter).
Well, that particular class were graduating Grade 9 at Eskasoni and I was asked to come back and be the speaker at the graduation before they would go to Riverview (high school). We were in this big gym and all the graduates were sitting in the front right below the stage and the parents were sitting at their tables. It was a banquet and I’m the speaker. I said, ‘Do you know, this was a class I remember. They were the best singers I’ve ever had.’ And I said, ‘I’ll give you an example of a song they sang for me one time.’ I sang that. All the parents were laughing and (the students) were just totally embarrassed. (Laughter). Because they were Mi’kmaw speakers—they were all Mi’kmaw speakers—that’s how they were hearing the English.
(Was there a conflict between how you might have been treated by nuns who were teaching and becoming a nun yourself?) Conflict in what way? (In your mind.) No, I can’t say there was a conflict. I don’t know how I would compare it. I can’t compare residential school and religious life—entering religious life—in too many ways other than the fact that what I learned at residential school was strict rules and following the rules. Strict times, certain times that you do certain things, and quiet. All of these I learned at residential school. I went to Mabou. I was able to live boarding school life easier because of my past experience living at residential school. I entered religious life and I was able to survive in the rules and the strictness of keeping the rules and the silence and the scheduling because of my past experiences. So that made it easier for me. I fell right back into that mould—way—of daily life. So, in a way, because of my past experiences, my experience in religious life became a little easier, I would say.
(Where you spent so much of your life, from the time you were a child, living in big buildings with lots of other people, what does this feel like now to be here?) Almost heaven, West Virginia. (Laughter). Well, I’ve only lived here four or five years now. I used to live at Whitney Avenue way up on the top floor. I’ve had two open-heart surgeries. And when the third one was to happen but would not happen because of fear of not surviving it, they told me that I could do something for myself, which was to move out of the house that had stairs in it. Where I lived had plenty of stairs. And so this was made available somehow within a couple of months or so and I moved in here. Just before moving in, I had a terrible car accident and I was out of commission for maybe three months. Before I was in the car accident, I was involved in getting the furniture but not involved in setting up. So my sisters had done all of that. All I had to do was come in, move in and settle in. This is where I’ll be until I move to Antigonish, which will be my final home.