A Most Disturbing Book

  • Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein
    St. Michael's Residential School: Lament and Legacy. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Corinne Bigot

St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy (2021) is one of the most disturbing and puzzling books I have read in a long time. I am still unable to decide whether this account of the four months the authors spent as care workers at the Alert Bay Student Residence in 1970 is a self-complacent, self-indulgent, and badly written book or a subtle demonstration of the dehumanizing process and trauma the Residential School system induced, including in staff.


The book is divided into two parts, “Nancy’s story”—twenty-seven chapters—and “Dan’s story”—the last two chapters. Rubenstein’s chapters explain the context behind the book—the shock waves of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report that rippled across Canada in 2015. Rubenstein felt compelled to add their voices and testimonies as former staff in a residence in Alert Bay, BC. By 1970, what was St. Michael’s Residential School was no longer a school but a residence where Indigenous children from Alert Bay (with a few exceptions) slept and were fed. The staff looked after the children in the morning and evening, before and after school. Rubenstein looked after the younger boys, and Dyson, teenage girls. Rubenstein’s voice and chapters sound genuine as he reflects on the gap between his twenty-two-year-old self and his present wisdom, acknowledging his lack of experience and lack of any concrete action or previous attempt at denouncing the system.


However, the first twenty-seven chapters are, as the title of the section suggests, Dyson’s story, not testimony about St. Michael’s. This section describes their lives outside, not in, the residence: Dyson writes about the food they ate, the drinks they had, the time they spent on Sointula, her affection for her dog, the anti-American feelings they encountered, the anti-Semitic prejudices Dan encountered, and the passes the administrator, Mr. Roberts, made at her. In spite of the many details and the dialogue she conjures, style is not Dyson’s forte. Nor is suspense—from the moment the cook Greg was introduced, I knew he would attack Dan with a knife because he hated Jews.


I can understand that Dyson would not want to speak for the children, but her account of their life in the residence is sketchy, distant, and lifeless. For instance, the fact that the children were not fed properly is only briefly mentioned. The scene in which she describes how four new kids were deloused and their hair cut is similarly sketchy—and we never know what happened to these children, who are never heard from again. Excerpts from the TRC report are included, supposedly “to verify that what [they] witnessed at St. Michael’s occurred in residential schools across Canada” (20), but I felt as if the authors had leafed through the TRC report and tried to conjure up scenes to illustrate it—the arrival scene, food, the absence of medical care, physical abuse, the contempt for Indigenous culture. Since apparently there had been no sexual abuse during their time at St. Michael’s, they evoke someone who worked at another school where it happened. Check.


The staff is described, and Roberts’ defence of the system is exposed, as are the actions and ideologies of the two villains, the worker called Edgar who takes the children to his office to strap them, and the matron, who, like Edgar, openly voices her contempt for the children. Most strikingly, Dyson’s narrative reveals her lack of empathy for the children. By contrast, her evocation of the female worker who arrived next is much more lively and credible than her mentions of the children. Most of the time they are referred to as “the children” or “a group of little boys,” and only three boys and three girls are mentioned by name. And only two names are mentioned on the dedication page, as if all the other children had remained nameless. Nancy’s emotional distance and her lack of emotion are disturbing compared to her affection for her dog. The scenes in which she briefly considers adopting the little boy they invited to their home for Christmas, but decides against it because he would be too challenging, are chilling. Although the couple were puzzled by the fact that most of the children were from Alert Bay and could have stayed with their families, it seems that as soon as the couple left, they were able to turn the page and forget the place, having appeased their consciences by (eventually) quitting.


Then, thinking of Lisa Jackson’s short film Savage (2009) and the way she shoots the scenes in which the hands of the staff undress, bathe, and dress the girl, I came to wonder whether all of this was not meant to convey the dehumanizing effect of the school and the system in general. Neither the children nor the couple seem to touch and be touched by the other. Should one see their emotional distance, the lack of empathy, the fact that they forgot about the children, as evidence of the dehumanizing impact the system engendered, and their amnesia as trauma? Yet why did Dyson spend so much time on their personal lives, drinks, dinners, and the dog? Why did she insist that Rubenstein’s skin was dark enough for him to pass as “Indian”? Dyson is better at evoking the political context—for instance the account of Jean Chrétien’s visit, which illustrates the Trudeau government’s efforts to present the White Paper. There Dyson and Rubenstein come across as intellectuals who were interested in Canada’s political context and policies in the 1970s.



This review “A Most Disturbing Book” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 May. 2022. Web.

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