The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.
I was born on January 4th, 1944 in Windsor, Ontario as a non-person according to the Canadian government. For me to properly tell my story, I need to tell you what Canadian society was like in those days, and the nature of the racist laws and genocide we faced.
As an Indian, I was considered a “ward of the state” under Canada’s Indian Act in 1944. The state of the world was chaotic, and we lived in a condition of madness and mindlessness. Tuberculosis or the “White Plague” had infected First Nations across the country and was the biggest killer of First Nations kids and people across the country. A few decades prior to my coming into this world, Dr. Peter H. Bryce had made some revelations about First Nations kids attending Indian Residential Schools across Canada. Bryce made headlines at The Evening Citizen in Ottawa, Ontario: “Schools Aid White Plague – Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians.”
Instead of putting us into gas chambers, the Canadian government used biological weapons – diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox – to kill us off in Indian Residential Schools. One Indian Residential School at Port Alberni reported a 69 percent death rate. I couldn’t imagine going to a “school” knowing that only three of ten kids would survive until graduation.
Canada knew the riches that could be obtained from First Nations treaty territories if they just wiped us off the face of the planet. There was nothing educational about Indian residential schools. They were slave plantations, genocide houses, and breeding grounds to spread tuberculosis and smallpox to First Nations communities. Kids sick with tuberculosis were sent back to their home communities where they spread disease. The church and government knew that these kids infected with biological diseases would be carriers from being exposed to Indian Residential Schools.
I caught the white plague and was hospitalized with my mom and sister Patricia at a sanatorium in London, Ontario. I guess it was termed the ‘White Plague’ because white Europeans brought these diseases with them into North America. My mom died at the sanatorium. I have very few memories of her, but I do remember her speaking Ojibway to me and knowing exactly what she was saying. My sister Patricia was two years older than me, and both of us were forced into Indian Residential School along with my older brother Ernie Riley and my oldest sister Lydia.
I remember how the abduction occurred. A couple of RCMP officers came to the house. We were a family of three adults and eight children living together. The Indian agent had come around a few weeks before the RCMP came, probably tallying up who he was going to send to fill the openings at the residential school.
The RCMP came to the house and knocked on the door. My grandfather was one of the three adults living there. He had lost 10 of 11 of his own kids to the residential school system. They had been sent to the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie. He was visibly upset because now his grand-kids were going to go the same way he’d seen his own children go. He tried to fight the RCMP off with his cane. He was in his 70s at that point.
My father’s girlfriend was also really fighting them off, and actually ended up saving the three youngest children from being taken away. My father was threatened with six months in jail if he didn’t give up the kids. He was forced to give us up, and five of us were taken in.
I had just come out of a sanatorium for TB where my mother had died. I was still sick with TB – a very contagious disease – and here I was being rounded up and sent into a residential school with lots of other kids. There was no cure for TB at the time. I believe that I was sent into residential school with TB as some kind of biological weapon. Whether I infected other kids or not, I don’t know for sure.
Later, when I visited the Mohawk Indian Residential School and looked through the archives, my sister’s admission form said across the top “sick with tuberculosis.” We both had tuberculosis and the disease didn’t have a cure until 1958, so I’m sure my admission slip said the same as my sister’s. Although I was unable to recover my documentation, the fact is I had an active case of tuberculosis, and as a carrier of the disease, I was sent into an Indian Residential School just as my sister was.
By 1950, I was six years old and some of my first memories were hellish. Who’d have known that this world could have been so mean and hateful. The church almost killed me a few times. Most people don’t know what it’s like to struggle the way we did. I fought to live, I fought to survive, I fought for my life. Hurt became numbing. The pain was physical and emotional. We learned not to break, not to submit or feel pain. I am an Indian Residential School survivor. I had two names – numbers 78 and 3 – and this is how I was identified at the institution.
The first night I arrived at the Mohawk Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ontario I got into a fist fight. It was terrifying. Fighting was customary on the first night of arrival to establish where you belonged in the pecking order. I wasn’t exposed to violence prior, and I wasn’t from a violent household. Before that, my only fight was the one I had with tuberculosis when I, my mom, and my sister Patricia were struggling for our lives.
At the school, I remember getting punched while pleading with the other kid to stop hitting me. All I could do was curl up in a ball to protect myself. I could barely hold down a meal. Here I was getting punched in the face and kicked in the stomach. I wasn’t in any type of school, it wasn’t residential, it was a prison for kids.
Tuberculosis was hard on my body. It was hard to breathe, and difficult to do just about anything that required moving around. Everyone watching us fight was cheering us on to hurt each other. Mostly they were cheering for the other kid. Little did I know, this was the kind of hurt that almost everyone here preferred.
The Mohawk Indian Residential School was known as the “Mush Hole.” The “Mush Hole” was so named by the kids because of the oatmeal they would feed us in the mornings. The oatmeal was filled with maggots and other sorts of bugs. The food was disgusting. It is a despicable act to serve maggot-filled food to anyone, let alone serving it to defenceless kids. We had to eat it because we were always hungry. In fact we had no choice but to fill our stomachs any way we could. The oatmeal or “Mush” was a gray paste; it did not look like the oatmeal we eat today. It was slimy, and the bugs in the food were visible. We would have to force it down into our stomachs each morning and give thanks to God.
The first few days I got very hungry since I would not eat the food they gave me. Eventually, I forced myself to eat the filthy maggot-filled food they were feeding us like everyone else. I remember one of the older kids telling me, “eat it, it will keep you alive.” The food was rationed out each day to the kids in small portions whether you were old or young. The portion size never differed between the age groups; the school fed us all the same starvation sized portions of slop.
Violence was a common theme at the Mohawk Indian Residential School. Amongst the boys, the pecking order was always getting changed as new kids arrived. “Pit fighting” was a daily routine. As bad as the fighting was, it was still better than the sexual abuse we’d face at nights. When the teachers or Rev. Zimmerman weren’t tormenting us with vicious and atrocious punishments for speaking Ojibway, we were surrounded by violence and threats of violence that left us in a constant state of fear and terror. After a while, the fear and terror became normal. It was something that we learned to live with. As a six year old child, not having my parents around, not being able to see my sisters – even though they were in the same residential school as me – fear became something I suppressed and learned not to react to.
Each day, you knew that sexual abuse awaited you at night. I lived in complete and utter terror at the Mush Hole. It wasn’t just me, it was everyone. When you closed your eyes at night, you just hoped it wasn’t your turn to be sexually abused by Rev. Zimmerman, his staff or the older boys. It was always someone’s turn. There was always someone who was in the cross hairs of the abusers. Terror became a feeling I learned to live with. At this early stage in my life, I wasn’t afraid of anything.
The older boys were right, the church took everything from us. They told me, “never show the Whiteman fear, or show him emotion, that’s what they want.” I remember praying to that Whiteman’s God saying to myself, “Please not me tonight Jesus.” The Whiteman’s god never listened to me, or maybe others were praying for the same thing. None of us wanted to be targeted and sexually abused.
I remember it was a cold fall in 1950. We were in class, learning English and singing some nursery rhymes when all of a sudden class was stopped. That’s the moment I became a slave. At that moment me and my classmates were sent to the fields and forced to do hard labour during school hours. I was six years old, and I had never had to work before. I just knew if you didn’t work, you were severely punished. That was apparent when a few children were beaten for not working properly in the fields.
The first days of harvest, I was amazed at the amount of food in those fields. I hadn’t seen that much food since I was back home where everyone had gardens and food was plentiful. The first night of working the fields I saw a kid next to me whom we called Rabbit pull out some fresh carrots from the dirt. I later asked him where he got them from. Of course I knew he got it from the fields, but I was just curious and hungry. Rabbit said to me “I got it from the fields. I snuck it out and hid it in my pockets. It’s easier to hide if you break the carrot into two pieces. But if you get caught stealing food you will get a beating.” Rabbit had been there for a few years, and he knew how the place worked.
The Church of England officials at the Mush Hole were looking to punish kids. I have to admit, seeing someone get beat down for not working hard enough, made us all work a little harder. I learned how to sneak food from the fields into my pockets, underwear, and the back of my clothing so I could eat late at night. Not all of us worked the fields, so we shared what we had with each other at nights. A dirty carrot or potato was better any day of the week than the maggot filled mush they fed us in the mornings.
Once I saw them try to force a kid to eat his own puke. Somehow the church official got the kids’ puke scooped up and put it in a bowl for him to eat. He sat there for a couple of days refusing to eat. The second day, he was pretty beaten up, black and blue. Everyone knew he was hanging in there, but at least he wasn’t defeated. He still had his will.
The property at the Mush Hole was quite complex and needed lots of work. It had a fully operational industrial kitchen, and we processed everything we farmed. Just a few years before, in 1948, Canada signed an important document called the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Indian Residential School survivors like me had our international rights violated as Canada broke almost every article of that UN declaration with their actions towards First Nations people.
The government of Canada was ruthless. They were removing kids from their homes by force and destroying their families. Their motive was to break the family structure so that we wouldn’t have a relationship to our lands and so they could beat the Indian out of the child. Without a relationship to our landsand our people, our culture was severely damaged. With generations of Indigenous kids growing up away from home and their language and culture ripped away from them at Indian Residential Schools, it made it easier for the government to lay claim to or rob First Nations of their ancestral homelands.
To be clear, Indian Residential Schools were but one cog in the colonial wheel. The Indian Act was weaponized and used against First Nations to attack our way of life and economy. Herding up children into Indian Residential Schools for child slave labor was something both the government and churches were complicit with. The government’s laws made it easier for the churches to enslave us and to try to break our hopes and our dreams. What happened to me and others at Indian Residential Schools was religious extremism aimed at destroying our identities.
I didn’t have a name at Mohawk Indian Residential School. My identity to them was number 78. The first thing the school did was to take away our names. I wasn’t considered a person to Canada or the church – to them, we weren’t humans and we weren’t Canadians. Therefore, we could be treated like animals and herded up like cattle. I was just number 78 to them.
It could have been that the English language at the time was too complicated for Anglican officials to say “Delbert Riley.” I could only imagine in 1950 if white people across Canada stripped their own children of their names and assigning them a number, like number 1, 2, 3, or 4. The reality is, this never happened in white European Canadian households, or in Canadian public schools.
We were “wards of the state.” We weren’t considered worthy of the dignity of being called by our own names. Giving us a number was treating us like prisoners trained to recognize their number on roll call, much like the concentration camps in Germany. Child slavery is not only illegal in international law, but it also violated the treaties my ancestors signed with the British.
God was the invisible man I kept hearing about in the Bible. Jesus Christ at an early age was the cause for all of this fear and terror aimed at the kids in the Mush Hole. “In the name of Jesus Christ” was the theme at the Mush Hole. Was it Christ’s vision for me to be a terrified child sex slave? A field slave? Or was it God’s will to have a kid starved half to death? As far as I could tell, the people who preached the word of Jesus were nothing but a bunch of demonic people who terrorized First Nations children at the Mush Hole. We would later find out this was happening across the country and was by no means isolated.
Slavery was once legal in Canada and the United States. It was still legal in Canada in 1950 when I and other kids were forced to work the fields to help the church turn a profit. I never received a pay-check working the Mohawk Indian Residential School fields; I never received any employee benefits. I wasn’t even given the benefit of the doubt. If you didn’t work, you were whipped! If you didn’t listen, you were whipped! If you didn’t speak English, you were whipped!
The Church of England, which owned and operated the Mohawk Indian Residential School, would try to enslave my mind, body and soul. From the first day I got there, I was terrified. I missed my dad and our family home. I had not seen my two sisters Lydia and Patricia since we were imprisoned at Mohawk Indian Residential School. That probably hurt me the most, knowing that my sisters were there, but that I couldn’t see or talk to them. I know they thought of me every day, just like I’d think of them. Periodically I’d look to see if the girls were outside: I’d try to find my sisters marching while watching from inside of the school.
If you weren’t white in 1950 in Canada, you weren’t alright. In those days neither the church or the government cared for the wellbeing of First Nations kids at the Mush Hole. For example, why was I required to become a pill popping guinea pig on my first day at Indian Residential School? I never had to take pills when I lived at home. There was never a need to pop pills daily before I attended Mohawk Indian Residential School.
Canada’s racial segregation permeated the halls of democracy. Only a Canadian version of democracy would allow for First Nations children to be treated as involuntary human test subjects. What pharmaceutical companies produced the pills? What was in the pills? What were the long term effects of the pills? Who ordered the use of the pills? Why did we have to take the pills? Who paid for the pills? Were the pills meant for human testing? What types of results were recorded? Why were First Nations children picked as human test subjects? Was it a part of the “food deprivation program” happening at Indian Residential Schools across Canada? I don’t know the answers to those questions. The churches were co-conspirators with the government, two separate corporations, and two separate entities, both enabling these horrors.
It was callous for the church to take away our names, but we named ourselves. We all had nicknames. With the church calling us by a number, we felt like animals. Having a number instead of a name makes you feel less of a human being. They took away our humanity and our identities. I wonder if it made punishment or torture easier for the officials to dole out because we didn’t have names and weren’t considered persons. They did these kinds of things without any remorse. It was just a job to them to punish us any time and keep us like scared cattle.
Under the Indian Act and within its Apartheid law, Indian Residential School was mandatory for all First Nations children across the country including myself in 1950. If the kids didn’t attend, the parents faced six months in jail. That is a long time to spend in jail, especially when you have to grow and harvest food for a family. Families in those days really depended on the man to provide for their families. Our families didn’t have much of a choice if an Indian Agent learned that you had kids. Families would get threatened with jail time and Indian Agents would scoop up the kids and send them to Indian Residential Schools. If anything, the mandatory law was a blackmail tactic threatening parents. Indian Agents targeted everyone’s children, including the families of hereditary Chiefs and chieftain clans like the cranes or eagles. With the forcible application of the Indian Act, our hereditary leadership and clans were disrupted and disorganized, and our cultures and languages took a real hit.
With Indian Residential Schools operating according to plan, the government wouldn’t see any future brave First Nations leaders who could stand up to oppression, segregation, racism, and enslavement. Canada was so racist at the time that it was illegal to raise your kids, or to leave the reserve without permission, hire a lawyer to defend your rights, sell fresh produce or livestock off reserve, or to practice your religious ceremonies.
Racism was legalized, and weaponized. Racism was the generally accepted way of life in Canada. The general public accepted the laws their leaders made to legalize racism. Canada had the votes to do all of this. Canada had just finished fighting a world war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yet Canada wasn’t setting up special schools like Mohawk Indian Residential School to teach the German, Italian, or Japanese kids the proper way to speak English, or to use them as child slaves to work the fields.
The government was ruthless; the church officials at Indian residential schools were barbaric. The irony was that the church was trying to make me into some sort of farmer when the Canadian government had already taken control of hundreds of thousands of acres of the best farm lands from my First Nation without ever paying for it. Longwoods Tract treaty territory had been pillaged, stolen and laundered out of First Nations control without a payment. It was useless to learn how to be a farmer when any time a settler wanted “Indian” lands, they just had to squat a couple of cows down and they’d get a few hundred acres of treaty territory from the government for it.
This was the doctrine of discovery at work, a manifest destiny mentality that “non-persons” like myself had no concept of land ownership, no rights, and “Indian Status” was granted by the existing government based on the Apartheid legislation of the Indian Act. First Nations people in 1950 did not have the right to vote in Provincial or Federal elections. You couldn’t vote unless you were “enfranchised.” You had to apply to become a Canadian by enfranchising yourself, and afterwards you applied to become a Canadian citizen. It was a tedious process to become a Canadian citizen with the right to vote, and it meant no longer being an Indian.
Racism was prevalent. It was the very reason why me and other Indian Residential School inmates were huddled up outside without coats on, beat up, beat down, raped, tortured, or enslaved to work the fields. It was racism that prevented children from being cared for at Mohawk Indian Residential School.
The comparison of Residential schools to fascist concentration camps is easy to make. Those in concentration camps were starved – I was starved. Those in concentration camps were malnourished – I was malnourished. Those in concentration camps would be treated inhumanely – I was treated inhumanely. Those in concentration camps would be met with severe punishment for minor infractions – I was severely punished for minor infractions. 50% of children in some of these schools died before they could graduate. And on top of it all, I was a child slave who suffered from horrific sexual abuse.