This story is part of School Violence, a CBC News series examining the impact of peer-on-peer violence on students and parents.
Every recess in kindergarten, Colton Johnson ran.
He ran and ran, chased by older boys.
When he stopped, too tired to continue, the boys would also stop and wait until he caught his breath.
Then, they would chase him again.
“I didn’t know why they were chasing me. I was just scared and kept running,” said Colton, who is now nine.
“I just didn’t want to go to school because I was really scared and all they do is bully me all the time. I just didn’t feel safe there.”
The place where Colton felt so tormented is Oliver M. Smith Kawenni:io Elementary School in Six Nations, a Haudenosaunee community with an on-reserve population of roughly 12,000, located about 30 kilometres southwest of Hamilton.
CBC News spoke with several other parents and children who say the school has been gripped by a bullying problem for several years, but neither the school’s administration nor the federal bureaucrat who oversees the school has done enough to address it.
The school is run by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), which still directly oversees seven schools across the country, including five in Six Nations.
While ISC funds all on-reserve education, most schools are managed by First Nation education authorities run by an individual band or a group of First Nations in the same region.
ISC, in its previous incarnation as the Department of Indian Affairs, once ran residential schools and Indian day schools, which today are the subject of multibillion-dollar settlements.
The bullying problems at Oliver M. Smith Kawenni:io have triggered a human rights complaint, as well as a petition with more than 1,000 signatures calling for more community say over how the schools are run.
Tim Mt. Pleasant, whose nephew attended Oliver M. Smith Kawenni:io until last year, said the federal department has been ineffectual in dealing with the widespread concerns from children and parents.
“We feel in our community that the issue is not being addressed,” he said.
‘I was really, really disgusted’
Colton Johnson now attends a different school. His mother, Amy Powless, pulled him out of Oliver M. Smith Kawenni:io following his kindergarten year.
He’s been through counselling to deal with the trauma of being bullied.
Powless said the teachers and administration at the school did little to deal with the bullying her son faced.
She took her concerns to Kathleen Manderville, who is the director of Ontario federal schools with Indigenous Services Canada.
She said that Manderville investigated the issue, reviewed how the principal and the teacher handled the situation, and concluded there was nothing more to be done.
Powless said she was told by Manderville that because she still wasn’t satisfied, Colton should go to another school.
“I was really, really disgusted … The fact that all these adults were just going to look the other way and allow my five-year-old to be abused,” Powless told CBC News.
“They chose to make him leave the school. The same children are doing the same thing, almost four years later.”
‘It’s not safe’
CBC News interviewed two other children who either attend or attended the school, and their mothers. Both children said they were bullied by some of the same students who tormented Colton.
“[They] kicked me in the stomach, pushed me on the ground, bully me a lot, call me names, grab more people and make them laugh at me,” said Kingston Barnhart, 9, who still attends the school and is in Grade 4.
“Sometimes, they even pull my shirt. That’s why they are usually all stretched.”
The situation has taken a toll on Kingston.
“Sometimes, my heart feels like it drops and shatters,” he said. “That is what it feels like when I am alone.”
Kingston’s mother, Autumn Barnhart, said the school administration and the federal bureaucrat who oversees the school have failed to deal with the bullying problem in the school. Instead of acknowledging the existence of bullying at the school, teachers would punish Kingston for retaliating against his tormentors, she said.
“It doesn’t matter what I’ve done, Kingston is still being hurt every day, and currently, he doesn’t want to be there, and I don’t want him there. Because it’s not safe … and it’s toxic,” she said.
Michael Mt. Pleasant, 8, attended the same school until last year, when he was in Grade 3.
Michael said he was bullied, too.
He described how he’d be walking around, minding his own business, when others would follow him and taunt him.
He’d try to walk away, but they’d keep following him, saying things like, “You’re ugly. I don’t like you.”
Michael’s mother, Brittany Mt. Pleasant, said she took her concerns to the school’s administration and tried various remedies to deal with her son’s troubles at school, including even attending class with him.
She said the school did not consider the incidents as bullying. Instead, the school told her that her son was involved in conflict at school. Mt. Pleasant said she was told by the school administration that it considered repetitive behaviour, such as a student taking another’s lunch money on a daily basis, as bullying.
“But if a child comes to school and one day he is being teased for the clothes he’s wearing, the next day he’s called mean names, the next day he is being alienated on the playground, that’s not bullying to them. That was conflict,” she said.
“I think that’s not right. That’s bullying. That needs to stop.”
She said Michael is at a new school in Six Nations that is also run by Indigenous Services Canada, but he does not face the same issues and is thriving.
She said there is a deeper issue at play at Oliver M. Smith Kawenni:io.
“I feel like the wall we kept hitting was the fact [there was a] conflict of interest within the school,” she said.
“Some of the bullying was being done by some of the staff’s children.”
Brittany Mt. Pleasant turned to her brother-in-law, Tim Mt. Pleasant, for help. In June 2019, she extended her parental rights to him so he could become an additional legal guardian of Michael and press her son’s case with Indigenous Services Canada, because the department wouldn’t deal with him otherwise.
She asked her brother-in-law to help because he previously worked as a policy analyst for the Ontario provincial government and knew how to deal with the bureaucratic system. He began to press the federal department to apply Ontario’s bullying policy at all federally run Six Nations schools.
WATCH | Six Nations kids talk about their experiences being bullied
He says he kept running into walls within the department and that Manderville contacted the Six Nations police this past June to get him to stop contacting her about the issue.
“So, the person responsible for addressing these concerns and complaints from our community with regards to our children … is now calling the police on community members,” said Tim Mt. Pleasant. “And I am a guardian of one of the kids in the school.”
ISC said in a statement that Manderville called the police because Tim Mt. Pleasant’s “repeated emails became threatening in nature.”
Mt. Pleasant denies any of his emails were “threatening.”
Push for local control over schools
Tim Mt. Pleasant circulated a petition in September that received more than 1,000 signatures, alleging that “bullying is persistent and pervasive behaviour that continues to play out within Six Nations schools.”
The petition, which was sent to Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also called for a town hall meeting with the federal department, along with a policy that would prevent school staff who are employed by ISC from having their own children attend schools where they work.
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Tim Mt. Pleasant also filed a federal human rights complaint against ISC on behalf of his nephew Michael, alleging the child “was harassed at school.” The complaint says Manderville “failed to address the matter.”
The Canadian Human Rights Commission is currently reviewing the complaint.
ISC said it would follow “due process” in responding to the complaint.
The issue has now drawn in the top bureaucrat for the department in Ontario.
Anne Scotton, regional director general for ISC in the province, wrote to Mt. Pleasant on Oct. 4 indicating that the five federal schools in Six Nations follow the Ontario government’s definition of bullying.
Scotton said there are various programs in place at Six Nations to deal with “conflicts in federal schools.” She said parents should also get involved with home and school associations.
“Staff are vigilant to ensure student safety at all times, whether in school, on the playground, or during school sponsored activities,” Scotton says in the letter.
“Bullying is a social concern that all of us share.”
Nothing that happens within our schools is governed by our community.– Tim Mt. Pleasant
In a statement to CBC News, the department said the federally run Six Nations schools deal immediately with complaints of bullying, “accompanied by promoting traditional knowledge that is grounded in the cultural, historical and Haudenosaunee values of the Six Nations communities.”
The statement said the director of Ontario federal schools “monitors” any interventions and consequences that stem from instances of bullying.
Tim Mt. Pleasant said he just wants to see more local accountability for what happens inside the community’s schools.
“The end game … is to try and give more control over what happens in our schools to our community,” he said.
“Nothing that happens within our schools is governed by our community.”
If you have feedback or stories you’d like us to pursue as we continue to probe violence in schools in the coming months, please contact us at email@example.com.