Charley Chaboyer escaped residential school

Charley Chaboyer and family (left), Chaboyer at 17

My grandpa Charley Chaboyer escaped from a residential school

“He spoke of no ties to any family, race or religion, so perhaps they killed the Indian in him. But he survived.”

In 1800, there were two rival empires in the beavery lands of what would become Canada: the Hudson’s Bay Company of the British Empire, whose employees sipped tea in their forts and waited for the nations to come to them; and its gangster rival, the North West Company, whose Canadiens were encouraged to get out on the rivers, learn languages, bear gifts, find a nation, show its people respect and get adopted in. 

This was the policy of the empire helmed by low-born but shrewd Simon McTavish, also known in Montreal as “the Marquis.” In 1800, McTavish was building the largest mansion in town for his wife Marie-Marguerite, the daughter of Charles Chaboillez the Third, who had left high society and returned to the rivers and forests where James McGill, fellow beaver fur baron and university namesake, had first found him. 

Meanwhile, when not hanging at the downtown Beaver Club, 28-year-old Charles the Fourth was pushing further west each year with Thompson, Fraser, Mackenzie and other members worthy of big river names, extending his brother-in-law’s empire to the Rockies before the Bay could set up store.

Also in 1800, an Ojibway girl on the Red River in the middle of the continent gave birth to Charles Chaboillez the Fourth’s first secret child. Her family likely put him up each year when he passed through, because Charles put the Y in three more Chaboyers: thus branched off the so-called Métis family tree. 

“A halfcast and his two wives” by Peter Rindisbacher circa 1825–26

The 100 years of solitude in the books on Saint-Laurent in the Red River area before my grandpa was born there in 1900 are filled with meandering records of Ojibway and “half-breeds” travelling with the seasons from fishing spots to traplines to plains of bison. White missionaries came and went, built little wood chapels and recorded in their Christian ways details of race and birth, and what they wanted to see: marriage, baptism and property. 

For example, it’s written that half-breed Norbert Chaboyer owned a horse, two oxen and a cart, had five children with his half-breed wife and two unbaptized with an Ojibway woman, owned no land but had an annual fishing spot: they raised their kids and did whatever the fuck they wanted. Missionaries also noted the scores of Icelanders who appeared camped on Lake Winnipeg, having fled the eruption of Mount Askja, and how the locals taught them they’d never catch anything throwing their nets so close to shore. 

Lots of land to go around, an age of consent: keep a good rep so that others will trade with you, don’t be a bully or it’ll come back to bite you. Religious bullies, too. In 1850, a writer on the Saint-Laurent area wrote, “Faced with the bad grace of this Indian tribe, Bishop Taché sent the missionaries further north.” Thank God. 

Until the Bay won and absorbed the North West Company, then they railroaded everyone together, called it a country and fast-tracked Jesus. Previously, if you were driven by religious zeal, you had to walk and talk compassion, you risked getting burned or scalped like he got crucified. But with government-decreed children factories, a Brother or Sister was stuck in a building with no more sense of Jesus-adventure and no proper outlet for all their zeal. Ordered to kill the Indian in the child — the banality of evil.


Born in 1900, my grandfather Charley later said nothing about his family, their ways or his years in residential school, but an aunt said he once mentioned that those in charge were the Grey Nuns. If you read survivors’ stories of the Nuns’ institutions, they were living hell like all the others: physical, sexual and mental abuse, and the only way out as a kid was to sniff gasoline or ask a classmate to choke you. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says that at least 33 kids died escaping them; they tended to undercount. If you got caught escaping, then more punishment and humiliation, like concentration camps, but for kids who could not later bear witness to the world.

My grandpa Charley was my hero for something he never talked about. I once stole a pick-up and escaped my Sicilian boss and his family in the Bronx, New York. I got the keys and packed all my stuff in its back canopy and lay awake all night running through my plan, knowing that if I got caught, I’d get hurt, but I would not imagine failure. In the morning, my boss Charlie was there standing beside the truck, said he wanted to chat. I carried off a normal conversation, and he never looked in the back canopy, said “see ya tomorra” and left like any other day. On the road a half-hour later, a siren went off behind me, and the cops pulled me over for running a red I hadn’t noticed. I took the ticket and drove on. The rush I felt when let across the Lacolle border into Canada! I started right into a new life in Montreal and never looked back. The momentum of getting away unpunished kept rolling unstoppable for years. Alone sometimes, I’d break out laughing.

I told myself I had a motive. I needed money fast because I had a child to support who my father rejected — call it intergenerational trauma. But truly I wanted to take the risk of running because my aunts said that when my grandpa was 13, he escaped residential school — he got away. He spoke of no ties to any family, race or religion, so perhaps they killed the Indian in him. But he survived. 

I imagine him standing brown in a school shirt in a green clearing, his eyes like two blank pages in an open book, starting his life at 13, mute and listening, alone in nature and dignified, ready like hell for anything. ■

Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report here: Vol. 1, Vol. 2

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