Teaching history, making history: Why Leonard Skye has dedicated his life to educating Canadians through an Indigenous lens

The 70-year-old residential-school survivor was the first Indigenous teacher at Dryden High School. Today, the Leonard Skye Building Bridges Award is presented in his honour. We spoke to Skye about racism, education, and fighting for the next generation
By Jon Thompson - Published on March 22, 2019
Leonard Skye
On Thursday, Leonard Skye presented the award named in his honour to the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board. (Jon Thompson)

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As the first-ever First Nations teacher at Dryden High School, Leonard Skye spent 20 years subverting curricular and extracurricular barriers in education.

At five years old, Skye was taken away from his family, in Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake First Nation), and sent to St. Mary’s Residential School, in Kenora, 120 kilometres away.

When he retired from teaching in 2015, the Dryden Area Anti-Racism Network created an annual award — the Leonard Skye Building Bridges Award — in honour of his legacy. It’s handed out every year on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, Skye presented the award personally to his former employer, the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board.

These days, the 70-year-old travels across Canada, lecturing about the country’s history through an Indigenous lens. TVO.org talks to Skye about his residential-school experience, racism in his hometown, and a life dedicated to education.

What was your experience like in residential school?

At first, I thought, “Hooray, I’m going to residential school.” But as the year went on, I asked, “What am I getting beaten up for?” I finally found out we were getting beaten up for being different: speaking a different language, having a different culture. That hurt.

The people who ran the church were the ones at fault, not us guys. When we started out, as children, they said, “You guys sinned. You’re already in hell.” So if I’m in hell already, why should I be good? I went back to my Native ways — my language, my culture. I saw my buddy getting pins put in his tongue for speaking the language. That made me mad. All that anger, when I got out — I drank half my life away. Then I woke up. I’ve been straight for 35 years now.

What made you decide to dedicate your life to education?

One thing the creator gave me was a photographic memory. I could read a paper, then regurgitate it.

John A. Macdonald was the architect of the residential schools. He gave the plan to Duncan Campbell Scott — and he was a hypocrite. He used to write about the Native people being closer to God and about how perfect they were with nature. Then, when he got that portfolio, it was, “You’re goddamned little bastards. I’m going to get rid of your culture and language.” That was his mission. You see how power changes people?

I got in trouble for writing a paper on that in university because my teacher loved the Romantic writers, and Duncan Campbell Scott was one of them. When you talk about his idols, there’s bound to be a clash. He gave me a ‘D’ for that. I rewrote it and gave it to somebody else to read, and the paper came out as a ‘B.’

If a paper was 2,000 words, I’d give them 4,000. They would figure an Indigenous person can’t write like that. They’d call it plagiarism. I had to fight going through university, but then the people going through after me had a better chance, because they understood the differences I was making by fighting.

You were the first-ever First Nations teacher at Dryden High School, starting in 1995. What was Dryden’s history education like back then?

When I first came on board, there was nothing in the curriculum for Indigenous studies, so I did the history of Treaty 3, I did the powwow. The kids wanted a powwow. I got in trouble for standing up for kids. But, you know, they remember that: “My teacher stood up for me,” not “punished me.”

I made a difference for a lot of non-Indigenous students, too. I opened their eyes. Some of them come from well-to-do families. I opened up their parents’ eyes by teaching the kids — and the students went home and taught their parents. They didn’t know anything.

Some of the parents — “The treaties, the residential schools: you’re making that up,” they told me. Those are the ones that denied the stuff that took place.

The non-Indigenous students were the ones that were learning the language and the history. That’s all it takes, is planting a seed in one person and they’ll continue on. A teacher can’t be a 100 per cent miracle-worker.

How did things change over the next 20 years? Could you see the impact on the next generation?

They were better. With the powwows and that, they kept it going. A lot of the non-Indigenous students would take Native history, and that’s where the powwow generated. To do that, I had to battle paperwork and policy. They took Native studies away from me and gave me Native language.

So I found a way to organize powwows with the Native-language course. I got on the policy committee and the financial committee, so I found loopholes in the policies to get “cultural events,” and we kept doing it.

You just presented the Leonard Skye Building Bridges Award to the local school board. What is Dryden High School like now?

We hosted the Ontario Federation of School Athletics Associations volleyball tournaments here in 2015, and we drummed in the athletes from southern Ontario. It was the first time they’d ever heard a drum song — an honour song — both the girls and boys. They said, “That’s awesome.” It was the first time the drum had been at that tournament anywhere in Ontario.

What was your first thought when you heard senator and Dryden resident Lynn Beyak give a speech in 2018 defending residential schools?

People say stupid things, but she had to be in residential school to figure out the suffering. For me, I almost got killed, and my wife almost got killed. She tells me that, one day, she ran away, and she could hear bullets whistling past her head.

I’ve forgiven people who did me wrong, but that opened wounds again. I thought that would never happen again with those types of statements. To have a person of that calibre in politics say that didn’t happen, it’s like denying the Holocaust. I’d put her in the same category.

The Senate released the findings of its ethics inquiry into Beyak on Wednesday. We just came from an anti-racism rally here, and nobody talked about her — her name didn’t come up once. Why do you think that is?

A lot of people harden over time after receiving the same treatment over and over. We just shove it aside.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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