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Morley residential school survivor says rebuilding controversial church will revive pain

"It’s time to give it back," Stoney Nakoda elder Valentina Fox says
Valentina Fox, respected Stoney Nakoda elder and Morley Indian Residential School survivor, opposes the reconstruction of the McDougall Memorial United Church, which stood at the site overlooking Morley, Alta., for 142 years before it was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 2017. She says the church serves as a painful reminder of the abuse suffered at the residential school.

This is the second of three articles on the McDougall Stoney Mission Society's efforts to have the McDougall Memorial United Church restored, and what those efforts mean for reconciliation with the Stoney Nakoda First Nations.

READ MORE: Question of reconciliation looms over resurrection of burned church in Morley, Alta.

Valentina Fox remembers preparing for her first day at the Morley Indian Residential School with excitement. 

Her mother bathed her in a washtub before weaving her hair into two long braids. Her mother had made her a new dress and moccasins. 

“I was so proud of my new clothes," she said. 

But after her parents had registered her and left, her sense of anticipation gave way to fear. 

She and two other girls were taken to a basement shower room where a matron ordered them to strip off their clothes. 

“We didn’t understand a word of what she was saying because we didn’t understand English. We were just standing there scared, and she yelled at us, then started ripping our clothes off," Fox said, her eyes becoming distant as she recalled the panic she felt then as a seven-year-old girl. 

The girls were soaked with kerosene before being pushed into the shower. 

The experience, Fox said, was totally foreign. 

“It was the first shower in my life,” Fox said. “I thought she was going to drown us. I was so scared, shaking and crying.” 

Fox did not speak English, only her native Stoney Nakoda language, but the woman’s harsh tone commanded obedience. 

“We were traumatized,” she said. “I wanted to go home, I wanted my parents.” 

The woman cut off their braids, giving them a bowl cut with straight bangs across their foreheads, and dressed them in cotton dresses and canvas shoes. 

“My brand-new moccasins, my brand-new little dress, my little jacket, I never saw them again. They probably burnt them," Fox said. 

This was the first day of the next eleven years Fox would spend in residential school. 

The three-storey Morley Indian Residential School building was located where the Morley Community School stands today, next to the Morley United Church. 

While the government funded the Morley Indian Residential School, the United Church operated it.  

Classes were held in an adjacent two-room schoolhouse, where grades one to four were taught in one room and five to eight in the other. 

Children spent the mornings learning “reading, writing and arithmetic” and their afternoons doing chores. Girls were given domestic tasks while boys farmed and ranched on the land around the school. 

While students at the Morley Indian Residential School were allowed to speak their native language to each other, Fox says children were beaten for not understanding English. 

“Teachers would hit us with big long rulers, or anything they had in their hands,” she said. 

 Aside from brief breaks during holidays, children stayed at the school separated from their families, Fox said, as missionaries believed they would interfere with their children's Christian re-education. 

Fox was in the residential school when, less than a year after she arrived, her mother died. She had not seen her in hospital, and due to tradition wasn’t allowed to see her mother in her casket. 

“In a sense, her death didn’t seem real,” Fox said, adding, “it’s like she didn’t exist.” 

Conflicts between her Stoney Nakoda cultural teachings and Christian lessons created an internal strife that still lingers, Fox said. 

She recalls being invited to a Sun Dance as a young woman, accepting a plume of eagle feathers. But as she danced, she wondered if she would be damned to hell. 

“The church is telling you are forbidden to participate in any ceremonies or ‘evil’ dances, we were told the ceremonies were the work of the devil and if we participate in it we are going to burn in the Lake of Fire forever. That was drilled into us," Fox said. 

After she left the system — expelled in Grade 10 for punching a matron when the matron grabbed her hair in an argument over a record — Fox says she was left with a lingering bitterness and harshness that she took out on others and that led her down a path of addiction. 

Still, Fox says her experience was not as bad as it was for other residential school survivors, many of whom choose never to speak of their pain. 

“Children did suffer mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse," Fox said. 

While not every child was sexually abused at the Morley Indian Residential School, Fox said many were: “My sister was one of them.” 

After four decades of indoctrinating local Stoney Nakoda children into “the White Man’s way,” the Morley Indian Residential School closed in 1969. 

“We are a very resilient people, because despite everything we still have our ceremonies, we still have our language and we still practice our culture,” Fox said. “They tried to kill that out of us, but we still have it.” 

The building has long since been torn down, but the school’s effect still ripples through their community. 

When Fox heard the McDougall Stoney Mission Society was working to rebuild the original McDougall Memorial United Church — which stood on the Methodist mission and Morleyville settlement site overlooking Morley, Alta., for 140 years before it burned down under suspicious circumstances in 2017 — she saw it as a resurrection of the pain suffered by survivors of the schools the church once operated. 

“That was a reminder for some people that were sexually abused by men of God," Fox said. 

Fox said she understands why the society, led by Brenda McQueen who is the great-great-great granddaughter of the founder of the McDougall methodist mission, would want to preserve her family’s history, but says it cannot come at the expense of those who have suffered because of it. 

“Why is it so important for them to rebuild? Their history of that church is very important to them — our memories of what happened in these churches is important to us,” she said. “Why is their importance more important than ours?” 

While she appreciates the society intends to rebuild the historic church in the spirit of reconciliation, Fox said real reconciliation would mean giving the 44-acre plot where the church once stood back to the Stoney Nakoda people. 

“It was taken from us. I think it’s time to give it back to us,” Fox said. 

A land claim over the site was settled in 1999, where the Stoney Nakoda surrendered the surface of the land to the United Church in exchange for nearly $9 million in compensation for the United Church mining the land and keeping profits that belonged to the local First Nations. 

A 2003 amendment, however, gave the Stoney Nakoda the right to buy back the land for $10 if the McDougall Memorial United Church and its historic designation are no longer on the land. 

As the McDougall Memorial United Church has burned down — though McQueen says 80 per cent of the logs survived and are being restored so the church can be rebuilt — the Stoney Nakoda Tribal Administration sent a letter on Feb. 11 to the Alberta Ministry of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women to have the historic designation reviewed and possibly revoked. 

Though there are members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations who do support the rebuilding of the church, and who have maintained a close connection to Christianity and the local United Church, Fox said they do not speak for all of the people of Morley. 

“They need to listen — listen to us, the people whose lives have been destroyed and are on a healing journey,” Fox said. “They should consider our history, our feelings and not rebuild.” 

For reconciliation to be meaningful, Fox said, it needs to be led by the Stoney Nakoda people. 

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