‘I was a white man and I was not proud of it’

 In Opinion

Stayner resident and retired builder Manfred Leimgardt recalls a time when he took a job working on the construction of the Kitsaki School, a school to be run by the Lac LaRonge Indian Band in northern Saskatchewan. During his time there, Leimgardt witnessed the systemic racism against the Indigenous community. In 1977 the band started looking after the education needs of children and running its own schools. In 1993, Kitsaki school was renamed in honour of the late Senator Myles Venne School for his contributions to achieving band-control over the Lac LaRonge Indian Band education system.

This is the story of an incredible year that changed my life.
The year was 1979 and the town of Stayner approached me about addressing problems with three buildings. The library was too small, the bell tower needed a foundation and the railroad station needed repairing. The town hired an architect named Griesbach, and him and I spent some time coming up with a plan. We thought to put all three buildings (the library, the bell tower and the railroad station) together on one foundation at the railroad site. 
Council thought this was a good idea, however the library board did not. They talked about it all winter and in the meantime, I thought it was good-to-go and had all of my trades lined up for the spring. The idea didn’t end up happening, I was the loser. 
I went to manpower in Barrie and they had two jobs for me. One job was in the Flin-Flon mine in Manitoba, the other in La Ronge in Northern Saskatchewan. I chose to go to La Ronge. I packed my tools in the Oldsmobile, kissed my family goodbye, and drove three days, 2,800 km, to get to my destination. Thinking back, this was all fun, however I had a farm with a chicken operation that was losing thousands of dollars and I needed to make money somehow. 
My employer, Public Works Canada offered me $800 a week. My job consisted of working on a new school for the Indigenous people in La Ronge, Northern Saskatchewan.
The sun at this time of year only went down for about four hours so I had 20 hours of daylight each day.
With 5,000 Indigenous people and 100 white men, it was the first time I ever experienced living somewhere where your skin colour mattered.
I was a white man and I was not proud of it. Before I arrived, the school was in the building process for two years. The school was about half the size of Stayner Collegiate Institute. It still needed a lot of finishing work such as hanging interior doors, installing cupboards, setting toilet bowls, placing glass for door walls and pouring sidewalks. 
Public Works Canada worked out of Prince Albert, which was 200 km south of us and all of their crew members travelled from there. All of them white. They had a working trailer at the site with two bedrooms, one for me and one for the foreman. We ate at the local restaurant which was run by white people, but employed the Indigenous locals. Work at the school was very slow, I came all this way only to be told to take it easy.
The chief was a man in his 30s. He was a communicator and I got along with him very well. 
Eventually, my foreman left because he wanted to go back home and therefore I became the big man. The chief was eager to get the school up and running, so we made a plan and decided that the school would officially open in 1980. All of the material that was needed to finish the project was on site. 
I had a lot of young people around me so I thought I would teach them some tricks of the trade. I thought, “what if the teachers could instruct the students on how to build and install things around the school?”
Before I knew it, we had 25 people hanging door hinges, putting up shelves and filling them with books. It was so much fun to see these people realizing their dream and getting their own school. Then things took a turn for the worse.
Management overheard the progress and came up for inspection. There were four men in a car, they told me to pack up my tools and go back where I came from. The chief told me not to worry as he would hire me back to finish the job one day, he actually offered me a teaching position at the school. In the long run, I was allowed to stay and finish my job but I was not allowed to continue my work after that.
The school was opened by the chief in September, I packed my tools and came back home.

– An excerpt from a memoir by Manfred Leimgardt, edited by Victoria Leimgardt.

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