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The night the residential school burned to the ground — and the students cheered

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The first thing Jenny Spyglass remembers is the shouting. There was a fire, she was told, and she needed to get out — now.

It was 1948, and smoke was pouring out of the basement of the Thunderchild Indian Residential School.

The large dormitory room filled with girls getting ready for bed exploded into chaos. Seven-year-old Spyglass was given a thin blanket and was marched down the fire escape into a January night with temperatures reaching –35 C.

Flames quickly consumed the old wooden building. The large barrel of diesel and lubricating oil in the basement didn’t help. The fire was so large, it could be seen 65 kilometres away.

There were no casualties because they were all prepared.— Milton Tootoosis

It would be understandable if the students were frightened that night.

But instead of crying, many students started cheering.

Now 77, Spyglass, like other survivors, is convinced that boys at the school intentionally set the fire that burned the school to the ground.

And she’s glad they did.

Residential school survivor Jenny Spyglass says she’s glad the residential school burned down. (David Shield/CBC)

Stories of abuse, overcrowding and death

The story of the Thunderchild residential school is a familiar one.

Established in 1901 by the Roman Catholic Church just outside the village of Delmas, about 30 kilometres west of North Battleford in central Saskatchewan, the school was designed to house and educate First Nations children in the area.  

However, there were problems.

Milton Tootoosis, historian and headman of the Poundmaker First Nation, said many stories of abuse at Thunderchild came out during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

The TRC spent six years documenting Canada’s residential school legacy — a government-funded, church-operated assimilation program from the 1870s to 1996 — and issued 94 recommendations, including several involving child-welfare reform.

Tootoosis’s parents went to the Thunderchild school in the 1940s. When he asked his father about the school, he would immediately fall silent.

« It’s a way they survived, » Tootoosis said. « They didn’t want their children to know what really went on in those schools, to protect them from the shock and likely the anger we would have experienced. »

The Thunderchild residential school operated from 1901 to 1948 near Delmas, Sask. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

Death rates were high in the overcrowded school, according to Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Residential Schools in Saskatchewan, a report written by the University of Regina’s faculty of education.

According to a paper prepared for the Law Commission of Canada, 15 per cent of the students at the school died in 1928, a rate of up to five times the provincial average for non-First Nations students.

A survivor and a brother lost

Spyglass was three years old when a black Jeep drove up to her family’s home on the Mosquito-Grizzly Bear’s Head-Lean Man First Nation.

Indian Agents and a priest « were pointing their fingers at me, and my mom started crying, » she said. « I should have had the feeling that something was wrong. »

She said the agents took her and threw her into the back of the vehicle. Dust caught in her throat as she bounced along the gravel road.

« I yelled and I screamed and I fought, » she said. « That didn’t help. »

She would spend the next three and a half years at the school. She said life there was hellish.

« It’s hard when I talk about it. Sometimes I can’t sleep. »

A group of parents camp near the Thunderchild school as they visit their children. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

One day at the school’s church, she saw her brothers sitting on the boys’ side of the aisle. She sprinted over to them for a hug. She hadn’t seen them in weeks. She said the nuns caught her and threw her into the school’s basement for the rest of the day.

« I thought they were going to leave me to die, » she said. « It was no use crying. They just left me. »

She said food at the school was inadequate.

« I didn’t like dry bread, dry bannock. That’s how we ate, » she said. « I didn’t know what a chocolate bar was — or an apple or an orange or a banana. »

Over the years, Spyglass said most of her brothers and sisters ran away from the school, except her older brother, Reggie. He died at the school after contracting tuberculosis.

« Reggie was my best friend, » she said. « Reggie was my playmate. He was everything to me. »

She said the strict conditions at the school made it impossible to mourn.

« I didn’t know how to grieve, » she said. « I didn’t know what to do. »

The original residential school building. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

The warning spread quickly

Spyglass and Tootoosis said the fire at the school was carefully planned by students.

Word quietly spread from student to student that night, telling everyone to get ready. Tootoosis said the boys were told to go to sleep with their clothes on and cover up with a blanket, so they would be ready once the fire started.

« There were no casualties because they were all prepared, » Tootoosis said.

According to an RCMP investigation report from the time, the fire started in a cupboard where custodians kept their tools. The nun who discovered the fire tried to throw water on it but was forced out by thick black smoke.

The provincial fire investigator believed the fire might have been set intentionally and asked RCMP to question four teenage boys. However, the boys claimed they had nothing to do with the fire, and the case was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

Once outside, Spyglass and some of the other children were taken to a garage to spend the night.

I hated school right through my teenage years. I would make an excuse to go to the washroom outside and from there I would take off.— Jenny Spyglass

In the morning, she was taken back to her home and her family.

« From far away, I saw a young man running towards us, » she said. « When I recognized it was my big brother Martin, I threw my little blanket away and my big brother carried me home. »

However, life wasn’t easy for Spyglass once she got home.

« All I did was cry, » she said. « I told my mom never to let me go anywhere. »

Finding culture and forgiveness

She began to attend a day school at the nearby Red Pheasant First Nation. Whenever she heard that the local Indian Agent was visiting her school, she would hide in the bushes, terrified she would be taken from her family again.

« I hated school right through my teenage years, » she said. « I would make an excuse to go to the washroom outside and from there I would take off. »

She dropped out of school after finishing Grade 10.

« I started drinking, and I didn’t like my life, » she said.

Jenny Spyglass and her husband Mervin Cox in the mid-1970s. (Submitted by Jenny Spyglass)

Eventually, she got married and had children. She started working at a school. She even got into politics, serving as a band councillor for 21 years and chief for four years — the first woman to hold that office in the North Battleford area.

However, it wasn’t until she discovered her culture that she was able to feel happy. After going to her first round dance, she bought a sewing machine and made her first dress.

« I was dancing, and I felt peace, » she said. « Those people that hurt me so much, I forgave them. »

These days, she works as an elder at many schools in the North Battleford area. She said it’s been an important part of her healing.

« I feel it within my heart, » she said. « I put my arms around them. I cry with them. »

Still, Spyglass doesn’t mourn the Thunderchild Indian Residential School. There’s no more than an empty field now where it once stood.

« They should have burned it a long time ago, » she said. « Maybe then my brother would be still alive. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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