Sins of the Fathers

by David Napier, published in the Anglican Journal May 1, 2000
Ben Pratt is squeezing a dirty old baseball cap between his beefy fingers. We are seated in a small room in the sparkling new administrative building on the Gordon Indian Reserve in Punnichy, Sask., about 150 kilometres north of Regina. Our interview has been intense, but so far without incident. Then I ask the 44-year-old Native Canadian about his time in prison (an incarceration in the early 1970s for a crime he claims he did not commit) and the sexual abuse he suffered at the Gordon's Indian Residential School in the 1960s.

Beginning when he was seven, Pratt was repeatedly raped by William Starr, a lay person who worked as the director of the student residence and was eventually made the administrator of the Anglican-run school. Starr was convicted in 1993 on criminal charges of sexually assaulting 10 boys between the ages of seven and 14, in incidents that took place from 1968 to 1984. Pratt later won a civil suit for the horrible abuse he suffered.

"We're talking getting buggered and oral sex. The whole f---ing deal," says Pratt, who has been staring at the floor for much of our conversation, but is now looking straight at me, his voice rising in anger. Memories of the abuse he suffered and the time he spent in prison bring Pratt to the edge of fury. "If the federal government was an individual and you were that person, I'd kill you right now. Honest to God I would. I'd kill you." These words make me suddenly and acutely aware of exactly how small the room is, and how slight the possibility that I would escape unharmed should this burly ex-boxer choose to wring my neck like he's wringing out his ball cap. I rise and slowly open the door. The banter from the hallway is reassuring for me and has a calming effect on Pratt.

By the time I return to my chair, Pratt's eyes are downcast again. He seems embarrassed by his outburst. But before long he is speaking again, quietly telling me that as a student at residential school, he was known by a number rather than his Christian or surname. "I wasn't called Ben or even Pratt. I was '38.' I'll never forget that number."

Pratt is just one of many Natives in this country who were ambushed by a federal government bent on assimilating Canada's original inhabitants into mainstream society, thereby eradicating the "Indian problem." This at times brutal attack is not ancient history, but rather a modern phenomenon, the effects of which reverberate today in men, women and children struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, suicide, sexual abuse of all forms (some who've been abused have become abusers themselves), and almost boundless amounts of rage and sorrow. "I have been told not to talk about this stuff anymore," says Pratt, whose legal adviser would prefer that his emotionally charged client not speak, for fear of jeopardizing another abuse case in which Pratt is the plaintiff. "The hell I won't. I'll talk to anyone I want, any time. And you can print that, too," he says, jabbing a finger toward my notebook.

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