Geraldine Robertson was 11-years-old when she placed on a train with her two younger sisters and sent to the Mohawk Institute residential school.
It was July 1, 1947.
Their father had just died and their mother was being treated in hospital for tuberculosis.
When the three young girls arrived at the Institute outside Brantford they were given a number — to track runaways easier — and introduced to the principal.
“I Instinctively knew I had to be careful. I didn’t trust him,” she said.
Robertson, an Aamjiwnaang resident, was one of 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children taken from their families and sent to Canadian residential schools.
For the past 20 years she has worked tirelessly to research and bring to light the stories of residential school survivors across Canada.
This year Robertson has been nomination for the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest honour, for her work at uncovering the intergenerational trauma experienced by families.
“It’s amazing how many people still don’t know about residential schools. All the years we’ve been talking about it, we still don’t know,” she said.
Robertson and sisters Beulah and Linda attended two of them: Mount Elgin Industrial school in Muncey and Mohawk, which was the first residential school in Canada.
Despite being a good kid Robertson was regularly “strapped” by the principal so hard on the hands with a thick leather strap that her arms tingled, she said.
Corporal punishment was widely used in schools at the time, but she remembers being strapped 10 to 15 times on each hand, despite four being the maximum number permitted by law.
“He was very malicious about it,” she said.
But it wasn’t just staff that posed a threat.
With little supervision, students were left to their own devices outside class, and she remembers being beaten up frequently by two older students.
At times, the bigger kids would form a circle and force the younger ones to fight, she said.
“If they didn’t, the older ones would attack them. It was brutal,” she recalled. “You had to do things contrary to how you were raised. You had to do things just to survive.”
At one point, Robertson and 28 other students attempted a desperate escape. They doubted it would succeed but hoped that so many young children trying to flee the school would prompt police to investigate the cause.
The girls were rounded up promptly. There was no investigation.
In 1950, Robertson left Mohawk to attend SCITS. After graduating she lived and worked in town and in 1995 moved back to Aamjiwnaang.
She came to realize during this time that the lasting impact of residential school wasn’t confined to her, that her cousins and others shared it.
And she noted the residual effect on her community, unresolved trauma that manifested as abuse and alcohol addiction, which is what claimed the lives of her two sisters, she said.
In response, she worked to train social workers and community leaders to look for and identify the signs.
“We would encourage people to talk about their experience so that they can begin to heal, because if you keep it within you and suppress it, you never really heal and it’s always going to impact your life,” she said.
Now 81, Robertson still lives with her husband Bob and continues her advocacy.
And recently she was featured in the documentary film “We Are Still Here,” which tells the story of several residential school survivors.
“It was education that got us in the great big mess,” she said. “And maybe it will be education that will get us out.”