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The Chosen Ones

The Chosen Ones

A bishop with a vision, a residential school without abuse and a class of teenagers who would lead the North
By Herb Mathisen
Sep 29
From the October 2016 Issue

"1967: The year we look back on our first 100 years as a nation and ponder our national future. Because history is a living dynamic reality directly dependant on the human beings who shape it, Canada’s future will be moulded and constructed by us—the students of today."

It’s been nearly 50 years since these words introduced a Fort Smith, NWT yearbook. They could easily be dismissed as the naïve writings of an idealistic teenager, but these words were prescient. Prophetic even. Flipping through the pages of the 1967 Grandin College yearbook, the smiling, cool and sometimes scared faces staring back are of the people who went on to write the story of the last half-century in the Northwest Territories. They’ve been chiefs and ministers, premiers and members of parliament, senior bureaucrats and MLAs. They’ve led organizations that have wrested power from the south, asserted indigenous rights and improved the lot of all Northerners. But back in 1967, they were a group of teenagers—hand-picked from across the Western Arctic—who bunked together and lived in a Fort Smith residence for ten months of the year. 

On the Origins of Grandin College

STEPHEN KAKFWI, former Dene Nation president, NWT premier: Bishop [Paul] Piché was visionary to the extent that he thought he wanted to do something to improve the lives of the people of the North. And he thought one way of doing it was to find priests, nuns and brothers from amongst the Dene, the Inuit, the Inuvialuit and the Métis to work from within the church, to make better Christians and improve the plight of indigenous people.

In the ‘60s, the church was still a very powerful force in the communities. When the bishop came on his tour, communities lined the streets, the banks of the river. There was always a crowd of people—and kids especially—that followed the bishop wherever he went. That was the kind of presence and power they had at that time.

 There was no government; there was no other force in the communities. There was the RCMP, who kept the peace, and then there was the church. There was the odd schoolteacher here and there, but basically the church was still the dominant force in the communities.

Somewhere in the late ‘50s, Bishop Piché had this idea of building a residence where he would bring selected young people from all the communities together and train them to eventually enter the priesthood, or become nuns or brothers serving the clergy.

MICHAEL MILTENBERGER, MLA for 20 years including 14 as cabinet minister: It was all geared to having kids get educated and go on past high school and to successfully go on to become priests and nuns. But they branched out and most of them got some kind of post-secondary education and became politicians, teachers, businessmen. Success stories everywhere. But we really seemed to sort of gravitate—a big whack of us—into the political arena. We were, over time, chiefs, MLAs, mayors, ministers, premiers and senior government officials. So yeah, it was an experiment that worked. It just didn’t quite get the goal that the church wanted.

On the Recruitment Process

MILTENBERGER: They went around the North, but mainly the Western Arctic… [Piché]  was on the road all the time. He was always looking. Of course people would go up to the bishop and ask, “Can my son come up? Or my daughter?” because they heard the good things about it.

ETHEL BLONDIN-ANDREW, former federal Liberal cabinet minister: If they found something interesting and something in your character and in your activities that they recognize, then they spoke to [you.] In my case, Father [Jean] Denis was very instrumental in getting me into Grandin. He was our priest in Délı̨nę  and he said, “You speak your own language. You know all about life up here. You can read well and you can write well, so I think you would be a good choice. I’ll write a letter for you.” 

KAKFWI: My older brother and I were altar boys from when we were very little and my older brother was selected to go. I think he went in 1962 and so I think my parents, my grandparents talked to the bishop. That’s all I know about it.

MILTENBERGER: Initially, I went to Breynat Hall [in Fort Smith] but then [my parents] went and made the case to get my sister and I into Grandin, as opposed to Yellowknife, which was seen as way too godless. I mean it was a big town then. It was 4,000 people. There were all sorts of temptations. They thought it would be better if we went over to Fort Smith, so that’s where we went.

On Other Residential Schools

KAKFWI: We all came from different places. When I was nine years old, I went to Grollier Hall in Inuvik and I went through a horrific experience there. All the abuse you could inflict on a little kid was inflicted on me, including sexual abuse. There was already a pedophile working there. And as a nine-year-old, I just thought the coping mechanism was to block it out, to not remember that. So what I tended to remember was, ‘Oh, it was such an adventure! What a brave young kid I was to go there!’ So when the arrangements were made for me to go to Grandin, I was just blissful. I thought, ‘Oh man, here I go! I’m going to have so much fun and it’s going to be a different place.’ 

MILTENBERGER: I first went into Breynat Hall, which was a residential school across the street [from Grandin]. Big dormitories, very strict—you had to have a shower with bathing suits on. I mean a lot of these kids had never been away from home. A lot of these kids grew up in the bush. I was 12, I think. It was my first time away from home. Kids are crying at night. Some kids are totally lost and none of us had been in that kind of environment before. It was a bit of a shock. A fairly significant shock, actually. That was the roughest year. Really strict, some abuse stuff going on. You’d see across the street, these Grandin guys. The golden kids. The chosen ones. And the way they lived, the things they did. We’d go out in the bush to some raggedy old cabins, where these guys had a nice log place that they built, and they were all out in buses and doing all sorts of wonderful things. We were sort of the poor relations in Breynat Hall, so when we got over there, it was a real change. We’d moved up. We won the residential school lottery.

On First Impressions

BLONDIN-ANDREW: I was told what it would be and I had to really learn fast what the expectations were. I think they were pretty clear with us though—on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis—what we were about. I knew what their goals were: academic achievement and excellence in sports and spiritual growth. Whatever you did, you had to do to the best of your ability, to do whatever it is you’re assigned. If you’re doing sports, you’ve got to give it your all. If you’re working in academics, you know, it was very competitive. I think there was a really competitive edge there. And I got used to that and never looked back.

KAKFWI: The first week I was there, it was starting to come back—the horrors from Grollier. The realization that [Grandin was] a different place came through a certain experience. I was in Grade 7 and the teachers at the schools soon realized I couldn’t talk [well] and I couldn’t read. My reading level was probably about Grade 5, they said. So they told Father Pochat, “We have to move him down. He’s not anywhere near ready for Grade 7.” Father refused. He said, “No way. He’s going to stay in Grade 7. What does he need to do to catch up?” And they said, “He’s got to read and read out loud.”

So one day, Father came to breakfast and said, “Tonight, you and I, we have a meeting in my office at seven o’clock”—or whatever it was. And all it meant to me was abuse—sexual abuse. And I was just terrified all day. After supper he said, “Come with me.” We went from his office, down the hall—this long, dark hallway, right to the very last door on the left side of the hallway. You know, it was so ominous and I don’t know how I made it to the end of the hall, but I did.

And then he turned the light on. And when he turned the light on, it was a little boardroom, a little meeting room and on the table was a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder and a microphone and a little pile of Reader’s Digest. And he told me, “You’re going to learn to read and we’re going to read here every night until you catch up.” And that probably made me the most relieved, happy kid in Fort Smith that night, because I thought I was being led down to be sexually abused and all the priest wanted to do was help me.

On Father Pochat, Grandin’s Head Administrator

MILTENBERGER: Father Pochat wanted kids to be educated, be thinkers, be questioners. 

BLONDIN-ANDREW: The good thing about Father Pochat is he really believed we had the ability like anybody else to do what we set out to do—that we could be winners, that we could be achievers and we could be high-fliers. I think he really believed that. He was a parent. He was our instructor and the head of our college, but he was also like a very good parent. Very loving. Very caring. Very understanding.

KAKFWI: We always felt like we were selected, that we were special, that we were chosen. Father Pochat talked to us that way—that we’re going to be the leaders, we are the ones who are going to bring change and make things happen in our communities. He hired staff that would foster that as well.

BOB MCLEOD, current NWT premier: He felt it was very important to have the students introduced to, I guess, the politics. I remember then-Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien visited the college and had lunch with us. We always had dignitaries that would come in and we would have the opportunity to meet them and interact with them. Father Pochat would bring in speakers to come to speak to us—most of them were aboriginal—so we had a very good exposure to those things.

On Cultural Influences

BLONDIN-ANDREW: There was always an element of being able to know that there was something out there. There was something more than just us, that there was a great big world out there. We lived in very exciting times, you know. Vietnam and a lot of the movements, the Black American Movement, and a lot of the unrest that happened in those days. It was an interesting time. It was a great cultural revolution going on at the time, with the music and everything else worldwide. 

KAKFWI: They took us to Edmonton, for instance. Twice. For me, that was huge. Other students went other places. We talked about the social movements, like the Civil Rights Movement in the States, changes within the church, music—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.

MCLEOD: We had very good libraries. I think we had all the local papers.

KAKFWI: Once I started reading, the stuff that I read was all short stories and poems. I read poetry in the school library and the Grandin library. So when [Hit Parader magazines with song lyrics] came out, [I thought,] ‘This is alive! This is not that dead stuff of all these old Alfred Lord Tennyson and Wordsworth and these guys.’ You get struck by [The Beatles’] “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Love Me Do.” And Dylan’s [lyric]: ‘Take me far from that twisted reach of crazy sorrow/oh, to dance beneath that diamond sky with one hand waving free.’ Holy shit! I’d just walk around with this stuff—I had it on cue cards.

On Day-to-Day Life in the Residence

BLONDIN-ANDREW: You were expected to take the initiative and work with what you had, but there was a lot of structure. There were set hours for studies—three hours a night and five hours on a weekend. I thought that was pretty good. Nobody complained, that I know of. You just went into the routine and your extracurricular activities, with sports and with other activities.

MILTENBERGER: We lived together 24 hours a day for ten months of the year and we worked together, studied together. We got up at six o’clock in the morning, you were exercising, doing your prayers, chores, school. 

BLONDIN-ANDREW: You learn that doing nothing and being bored is not an option. We were always out hiking or doing sports; almost anything we wanted to do we were involved in. 

MILTENBERGER: You’d have basketball games and the place would be packed. Just like in the States. Every seat, right along the edge of the stage, the galleries and everywhere, it would be just packed.

Hockey as well. We’d come up [to Yellowknife] and the mines would hire guys to play hockey. These would be hockey players. Rough. Sort of like the Hanson Brothers from Slapshot.

KAKFWI: In my case, I never really wanted to be there, so I put in the hours and the days and just waited for when I would come out. Every July and August I went home. That was it. I never did anything in sports. I did some artwork. Mostly, I just put in my time. But I was caught up, like I said, in the music.

On a Growing Interest in Politics

MCLEOD: I don’t think I ever had the presence of mind to say I wanted to get into politics. I know some of my colleagues probably did. The environment we were in— where they encouraged you to try new things and not to be afraid to make mistakes, that you can learn from your mistakes—I think led, in a large part, to a lot of us getting into politics and the feeling that, if you feel you can do a better job, don’t just sit back and complain about it, try to do something about it. That was sort of the way the college operated. Like, if you felt that there should be a photo club, then you should get a bunch of students together and start a photo club.

MILTENBERGER: Was I interested in politics? Man, I was into sports and girls.

MCLEOD: I was the valedictorian when I graduated. Back then I recognized how tough it was to put together a speech and to deliver one.

On Leaving Grandin

KAKFWI: I think that once the group got big enough and there was a core group, it was a movement. It bred in us a sense that, when we got out and we go home, we’re going to do things and that’s what we did.

BLONDIN-ANDREW: When I came back in the summer, I came back to look after my grandmother and the dogs. We had seven or eight dogs. My father hired a guy to set nets and look after the nets and I would clean the fish and feed the dogs and look after my grandmother. That’s from, you know, being on top of the world and wearing all the latest fashions. I remember chopping wood in my mini-skirt in Délı̨nę  and what a crazy thing that is, to go to a place where there’s no showers, no running water, no central heating or power and going right back to the basics. And then, in September, you go back to this other life. 

They want everybody to be strong like two people. That’s what they did to us. We were two people—we were the people of our homes, where we came from, and we were the people of the institution that led us down the academic and political or social-growth path. We were strong like two people. And I think we’re better for it.

KAKFWI: What Grandin did was they had us together and then when we went out, we had a network. We had a natural network.

On Grandin Relationships

BLONDIN-ANDREW: We made friends for life. All of us. We all mixed and we still do.

KAKFWI: When we started to feel confident and we were taking control of the North as chiefs and as MLAs and leaders, we realized, yeah, we have a family. We have a network. It’s great. So all of us had the ability, for instance, to pick up the phone and talk to six chiefs at any time that we went to school with. So the network was there that my grandfather didn’t have, my father didn’t have, very few people in [Fort] Good Hope had. I had it. So that was part of the gift of Grandin.

MILTENBERGER: It just gives you a common bond. For example, I was a minister last government and we were negotiating. I had the lead with L/ utselk’e on the Thaidene Nene park. The chief is Felix Lockhart. He went to Grandin College. He’s got people in his community, like J.C. Catholique and Tommy Lockhart, his brother, a renewable resource officer. I went to school with him at the same time. You have a shared experience, so when you deal with stuff it’s different than if it was Felix and somebody from Yellowknife, or a bureaucrat or a politician that he didn’t know and had no history with. You’re out at coffee, you can chitchat. I think it allows you to move files, like we did with Thaidene Nene, because there’s a history going back 50 years.

KAKFWI: Grandin also gave me the ability to relate to Inuit and Inuvialuit. That was very important politically in the legislature in working on [the division of Nunavut from the NWT in 1999] because I was the key person in the West that supported division that helped push it through. I would say, if I hadn’t gone to school with Inuvialuit and Inuit kids, division wouldn’t have happened, because I wouldn’t have supported it—there would have been nobody from the West that supported it as strongly as I did.

On Grandin’s Legacy

BLONDIN-ANDREW: I was MP for 18 years, I spent 12 of those in cabinet and a large part had to do with working with young people. I was the minister of youth. I always believed that if you invest nothing in young people and if you expect nothing, you’re almost guaranteed you’re going to get that. If you put everything into them, if you invest heavily into youth, you’ll get a lot of good back, but don’t expect 100 percent—that’s not the real world. People have failures and shortcomings no matter how good they are. But you will get as good as you are going to get if you invest and if you spend time. And if you have discipline, you have structure, you have goals, you will get something back. If you invest nothing, and if there’s no discipline, if there’s no direction, that’s exactly where you’re going to end up. There will be those that will always succeed despite all of the drawbacks, but that’s more an exception than the rule.

Grandin heavily invested. We had supervisors that were active with us, that participated in everything we did. That is the goal. That’s a really good thing.

MILTENBERGER: You look at pictures of scrawny little guys, 14 or 15 or whatever, a brush cut and skinny neck, tiny, and then you follow them over the years and you’ve had premiers and members of parliament, all at a time when the North was evolving and changing. And there was not a hint of any of the dark history that has plagued other residential schools, that I know about, that any of the people I went to school with know about, because we’ve talked about it enough.

BLONDIN-ANDREW: I noticed Grandin students are very resilient too. We reinvent ourselves all the time. If that doesn’t work, we do this. But we’ve got to be doing something and usually the reinvention is upwardly.

KAKFWI: I quoted a couple lines from [Bob] Dylan[‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man”] and those are the two lines that captured it for me. One is the loneliness and the hardship, being removed from your family and being robbed of your childhood—it’s captured in the line, “Take me far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” Then there’s the hope, the leadership, that you are the chosen, you are the future, captured in the line, “Oh, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” Those are the two lines that have stayed with me since ‘63.