Maggie Blackbird

Romancing Canada's Indigenous People


Charlie loaded the furnace with more wood.

Wrapped in a thick cloak, trapper’s hat, and big boots, the prefect, Mr. Moore, supervised. The religious always got to keep toasty warm with good clothing designed to ward off Northern Ontario’s icy chill and the nip of the wind coming off the mouth of the Spanish River where the schools were located.

As for Charlie and his classmates, they were tossed the donated jackets thin enough to let the chilly air touch their skin. Nor could they do anything alone. Since he was closing in on four years at the high school, and six years at the other Indian school back home, he should be used to being told when to sleep, when to eat, when to pray, when to use the can, when to study, when to work, when to…live his life.

Still, having Mr. Moore looking over Charlie’s shoulder…prickles of annoyance crawled along his skin. He loaded the last of the ash into the belly of the black outdoor furnace. The school would be good for six hours before it was time to perform the task again.

“Let’s go,” Mr. Moore ordered. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets.

The gloves meant to protect Charlie’s fingers weren’t thick enough to keep the low temperature from freezing his flesh. Loading the furnace wasn’t the worst chore, but it wasn’t the best, either.

As they started down the path back to the side entrance of the school, he glanced out at the barn, where his fellow classmates who couldn’t go home for Christmas were cleaning the stalls.

Mr. Moore stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Johnny, a younger boy, jogged over.

While Mr. Moore barked his usual orders, Charlie kicked at the snowbank, anything to keep warm. Something weird shined up in the crust of white. He must be imagining things, because it appeared to be gold.

Wait a second. Before lights out two nights ago, Brother Baron had mentioned Sister Bernadette had lost her gold band, and if anyone spotted it, to bring it to Father Siem’s office right away. The sisters always wore rings on their left fingers to indicate they were married to Christ.

He squatted and scooped up the ring with a handful of snow. The gold band glittered in the white flakes.

Stealing was considered a sin.

He curled his glove around the ring. What about what they were denied, though? Every day they ate the same sticky porridge, black bread, dollop of lard, mashed meat mush, watered-down milk, more-broth-than-beef stew, and no treats of any kind unless they paid for the stuff, which most of them didn’t have money for, with the exception of Roger who stayed on over the summer months to work cheap labor for a local farmer because he couldn’t fly home. The priest, prefects, sisters, and brothers dined on the eggs, chicken, meat, cream, milk, and butter that Charlie and his fellow students broke their backs to prepare.

The girls even sewed new clothing from the bolts of material delivered to the two schools for the religious, while the students had to wear donated cast-offs from whomever took pity on them.

Then there was etiquette class, so they didn’t behave like a bunch of savages—learning how to dine properly, talk properly, walk properly, and dance properly.

Nothing about being an Indian was good enough.

Charlie’s worn winter boots didn’t even fit, because he was too tall and had bigger feet than the rest of the boys. His toes were forever squashed. He was lucky there were hems on his pants the girls in the sewing room had let down so he wasn’t wearing floods.

In the normal high schools, a fella could give a girl his class ring or letterman sweater to share how he felt about her. Not here. As if he’d hand Etta the pathetic school sweatshirt every student had to wear. Even worse, Etta was lonesome. She couldn’t hide how bad she wanted to go home. If he gave her the ring, he could make her happy and let her know how he really felt about her.

“What are you doing?” Suspicion lingered in Mr. Moore’s question.

“N-nothing.” Charlie stuffed his hand inside his jacket pocket. He still held the ring in the palm of his glove.

“Let’s go.” Mr. Moore marched for the side entrance.

Charlie followed. The decision had been made—he was keeping the ring. Now he had to make sure he was never caught, or the too familiar handmade strap fashioned from an old conveyer belt that was a good one inch wide and about fifteen inches long with black tape around the handle and on the end of the paddle would find its way across his hand.