Monday, 14 January 2013

A Celebration or a Nightmare in Thompson, Manitoba: Forgetful History in the Residential School Era

This was an opinion piece submitted by Bill Sanderson where I am now publishing it in its entirety concerning the history of transportation and residential schools.

When the Lamb airplane model was erected along the river, next to the Miles Hart Bridge, I thought, what a wonderful way to recognize northern people’s work. I personally went to this site and took pictures and I also brought a visitor there so that she may take a picture next to it. I moved here in the north to teach at the University College of the North (UCN). There, I worked in two positions, one as an academic specialist and the other as the coordinator and instructor for the Tradition and Change program. In the latter, I was responsible to share my traditional knowledge with the UCN students. While teaching in this position, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet many students, both adults and youths. Thompson is located here in the far north and in the far north we have the larger population being Aboriginal, First Nations or Métis.  

On one occasion, while driving back with a student from Tastaskweyak Cree Nation (formally known as Split Lake Cree Nation), we talked about about many subjects, mainly personal experiences. As we entered into the city of Thompson, my student passenger focused her attention on the Lamb airplane. This female student, who shall remain nameless for privacy reasons, said that she was having the shakes as her memory was glued to this airplane. She said, “Do you want to know what I see when I see that plane?”  She said, “you know what, I remember the times they  would force us into those planes to take us to residential school.” She said that she still to this day has nightmares from those times she was kidnapped from home by the Federal government.

I was thinking after that experience, did anyone actually consult with the Aboriginal community what the erection of such a plane would do to the Aboriginal community members. More likely not. Following this thought, I completed some primary research to find out if in fact Lamb air was responsible for such atrocities. I found that information in relation to this topic was selectively shared.  So what does this mean really?  Only positive things were written. Particularly, when I went on the Lamb Family web site, there was no mention of performing the atrocities of kidnapping children for money. By avoiding the topic altogether, does it mean that the history of this airplane company is without a tarnished past?  Of course not.  I wanted to find out how close was Lamb air in relation to kidnapping children. I could not find anything whenever I would google Lamb air. However, doing deeper digging, I discovered that pilots who worked for Lamb air did in fact write about such atrocities, in shame. 

In particular, Keith Olson, in his book Flying the Frontiers wrote that some of his later flying jobs entailed picking up the Native children from remote settlements to take them to boarding schools. "We'd go to the various Eskimo camps and take kids into Chesterfield Inlet, or to Churchill.  "I don't know how Northern Affairs worked it, but we took the kids out in the fall and brought them back in the spring. They were away not quite 10 months, whatever was sort of convenient. "In those days, no one seemed to know just what to do with people in the North, in the Arctic," Olson says. "Should the Eskimos stay on the land, or shouldn't they? There were two schools of thought that never seemed to mesh. There still isn't any answer. But taking the kids out, I think, was the end of it, because once they'd been out they didn't mind going back but they didn't want to stay back." Olson observed first-hand the importance of family in the Eskimo culture. "They had nothing else. They lived a harsh life, and death was imminent from starvation or illness. So, to take away the kids, it was really hard. They were very stoic people," he adds. "One time when we brought the kids back to Aberdeen Lake west of Baker Lake, the sea ice was so rotten I had to land on a slope on the side of a hill, on skis.

These people had camped across the creek, waiting for their kids. A little girl got off the airplane with her school books and her doll. Her parents greeted her, but no one showed emotion in front of the white man. What they did was shake their daughter's hand, and you could just tell that they were so happy to see her back. "It was heartbreaking to realize these people hadn't had their kids around for a whole winter. As soon as summer came they got to see them for a little bit, then they were off again."

Olson, obviously recognized the importance of making notes of these atrocities, important enough to note it in his book. On the other hand, it is essentially impossible to find such written comments in any of the writings by the Lamb family. Could it be that there is some shame in it and that they did not want to be associated with such history? It is most likely the case. The photograph above is one of the photos on Keith Olson’s web page. Anyone who has the opportunity to raise children, knows full well that it is most of all extremely difficult to be away from your own children. Mr. Olson, knew full well the damage that he was contributing in flying the children away to residential schools. Mr. Olson’s strength to face this issue head on and write about it, this is most commendable and a true historian.

Mr. Olson continues to explain how this work was reached, the flying of children to residential schools. He writes about the shortage of work at the time. “The first morning on the job, he met the crew at a local cafe. There were six Lamb sons, who all flew. The principal owner, Tom Lamb, now spent much of his time at his ranch near Moose Lake where he raised prize-winning cattle.” (Ibid K.Olson) He writes that he wondered why he was hired given the work shortage. Following his hiring, he was then asked to recruit for work. He writes, “ In January, 1960, the company sent him to Gods Lake to stay with the Indian Agent and try to drum up some charter work. He stayed three months, picking up whatever work he could.” This digging gained the major contractual work to fly children to residential schools. Mr. Olson writes about flying to many communities, and these communities, for anyone living in the north will immediately recognize the names. For example, Gods Lake, Churchill, The Pas, Grand Rapids and the list goes one.

I want to make it clear that I did not question the honesty of my former student. Given that our society today would only find support in the written word, I found it valuable to do so, in order to state without question that these things in fact happened. Mr. Olson found it difficult to do such a job, nevertheless, he did it because that was the only work he could find at the time. 

A question one might raise is: “Why is he being so negative toward the Lamb family?”  Well, that is not the point here however, the point is, why were no members of the Aboriginal communities consulted prior to erecting such a monument which triggers an ugly part of this history.  I was blind to the fact that this monument held such negative nightmarish memories for many Aboriginal people of the north.  I found it incumbent to write about this oversight.

As a former survivor of the Catholic Missionary day School in St. Laurent, and the negative memories that I still, to this day carry, are at times very traumatizing, especially when I drive by that little community on my way to Winnipeg.  I would not want to be in the place of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters of the north, in that, they continually see this airplane if they live in Thompson, or in the neighbouring communities.  It does do something to the psychological aspect of a person, to continually be subjected to the awful memories of being taken away from their families.  To attempt to explain this aspect, here in this short article, is very difficult because to clearly understand this past and what it has done to us as Aboriginal people, one has to have experienced it to fully comprehend what it does psychologically. Some people have said to me, “come on Bill get over it already.” I would really like to do that, however, to leave trauma, especially when the general society, as in the case of this airplane does not fully acknowledge what has happened to us, makes it extremely difficult to do so. It is after all, right in our faces every time we want to cross that river. Our memories are kept alive, and this is not our choice. It takes a lifetime to deal with trauma, especially when the trauma occurred to us as children. It never goes away. It will be more difficult to deal with this past if Aboriginal views are continually compromised.  Let’s work together and talk about the truth and not be selective with our history writings.

Written by Bill Sanderson (Michif)


  1. I must admit that I was drawn to it mainly because of the LambAir connection in the first paragraph. Tom Lamb and my Grandfather were good friends: as my grandfather was a superintendent for Indian Affairs in the northern region, he relied on Tom and his sons quite often to transport him to places all around the north. I perhaps should not be responding, because Tom’s son Connie served as a “lake grandfather” to me – his cabin was near ours, and he substituted as a teacher and mentor for me as a young man.

    That said, this is a very one-sided portrayal of the family that helped build the north. In fact, Tina Keeper, then MP for Churchill, and a Cree activist, honoured the Lamb family as the “First Family of the North” in 2008 prior to Tom Lamb’s induction in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. One of Tom’s sons flew the emergency medevac plane into Brochet, where Tina lived, in horribly inclement weather, and flew her out – saving her life. The pilots who flew for LambAir served their community – and have been heralded as heroes for doing so.

    Connie had an amazing collection of Aboriginal art on display in his cottage – gifts from the various communities that Tom and his company served. These gifts were given as a true, heartfelt recognition of the value that Tom added to the lives and communities of the North.

    The Government of Nunavut honoured LambAir with an award recognizing the families commitment and efforts in the provision of critically needed aviation services in the Arctic. Flying bush planes and serving communities of the north is a dangerous, treacherous job. LambAir lost planes and people serving the North – to characterize them in this one-sided way is both irresponsible. The system that required these children to be apprehended is flawed, but the individuals carrying out what they thought was a good service are being attacked (let’s not forget the people who appreciated their time in receipt of government-directed education, mind you).

    For more awards, the University of Manitoba gave Tom an honourary doctorate. The 2008 publication of the Greatest Manitobans identified Tom as the third most important person in our history. This is a man, and a family who were good, honest, hard-working and caring individuals who put the needs of their community ahead of their own. We honour heroes in our society for their willingness to do just that, this privilege should also be extended to the Lamb family.

    I am not saying that consultation should not have been sought before erecting a plane in honour for the Lamb family – rather the awards given by individuals from all walks of life, including the Aboriginal communities the Lamb family served, seem to indicate that this due diligence had already been performed.

    1. The article says, not against the Lamb Family, but a question of consultation with the indigenous regional locals. Besides, a many have made profit as a result of indigenous issues,and still are today. Therefore, the Plane may be seen as a symbol of supremacy, race, and oppression: the real reason why Aboriginal people are rarely consulted with.