The changing sounds of deaf education

Gerard Tremblay credits his love of riding motorcycles, in part, to his experiences as a child at school. He started riding dirt bikes when he was 12 and bought his first motorcycle when he was 16. He's been riding since.

Gerard Tremblay credits his love of riding motorcycles, in part, to his experiences as a child at school.

He started riding dirt bikes when he was 12 and bought his first motorcycle when he was 16. He’s been riding since.

With bikers, he finds a community. He understands them, and they understand him. Riding throughout Canada has given him something else: “When I’m on the road, I feel free,” he said.

Freedom. Community. Two things he had a hard time finding growing up in Quebec. His experiences at school motivated him, but not because his teachers made education an enjoyable experience. Instead, they mainly did the opposite.

They didn’t even let him speak, or at least not the language he would have liked. He attended a school for the deaf, where he was forced to learn to speak French. He learned sign language only because other students taught him. In that way, it was like a school for First Nations students, he said. The children bound together to keep their language alive.

The youngest of four children, and the only boy, Tremblay was born deaf. He has an older sister who is also deaf, but everyone else in his family can hear. Tremblay can sign in both American Sign Language and French, and speaks both French and English. But no one else in his family learned to sign, so communication with them was basically non-existent.

But most of his childhood wasn’t spent at home, anyway. In 1964, at the age of seven, his parents took him from the family home in Shawinigan to Institut des Sourds de Charlesbourg, a residential school for deaf and mute boys in Quebec City. His sister attended a school for deaf girls in Montreal.

On that first trip, he had no idea where his parents were taking him, he said.

“I had my things with me, but I had no idea where I was,” said Tremblay. “I remember walking around and there was a man with a black robe on with some buttons, and I remember just looking at him but not really understanding fully.”

A man signed at Tremblay, but because Tremblay didn’t know sign language, they couldn’t communicate. The man hit him on the head, and Tremblay began to cry.

“It just seemed that when I looked back, my parents were gone,” said Tremblay. “And that was the beginning of my experience at the deaf school.”

* * *

He spent nine years at the government-sponsored, church-run school. In some ways, it was like a jail, he said. The boys slept in a large room; there was little privacy. The letters his parents sent him were opened before he got them. Students wore uniforms: blue pants, a white shirt, a tie, black shoes that needed to be polished perfectly. Each child’s clothes were numbered. Tremblay’s clothes were marked with 257.

Food was rationed: an ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes, a few carrots, a little bit of watery meat, a small piece of cake – not much for growing boys. Tremblay doused his food with vinegar to ward off hunger pains. Other boys had snuck into the priests’ room and eaten the sausages and drank the wine they found there. But Tremblay never did that, he said. He knew what the consequences would be.

Tremblay won’t say much about the abuse he and other students experienced. It happened when he was so young. “After that, my childhood was over,” he said.

But perhaps the hardest part was that he wasn’t allowed to sign. None of the teachers used sign language during class, and it wasn’t something they were about to teach their pupils. Instead, they tried to get them to speak. Teachers would sit with students next to mirrors. Children learned to speak by feeling vibrations. But it was difficult, and if they failed, they might get punished. The whole thing was “idiotic,” said Tremblay.

Tremblay learned to speak a little bit. But not being able to communicate made him angry. From a young age, he remembers wanting revenge, he said. He left the school when he was 16.

Tremblay has been in the Yukon since 1993, after spending years living throughout Canada. He doesn’t know exactly what he would tell his teachers if he met them today. They’re all dead anyway, he said. “It wouldn’t be nice. I couldn’t tell you what I’d say to them.” The school he attended closed in 1986. He never went back. He didn’t keep in touch with former classmates.

He works as a carpenter for the Yukon government, but he didn’t have many examples of successful deaf people to watch when he was growing up, he said. Sometimes deaf people do act strangely, he said. But they have their reasons.

“Don’t judge deaf people. Don’t insult them. Don’t talk behind their backs, because you don’t know what their life was like and the experiences that they’ve been part of.”

* * *

The experiences in the school system have changed. Teachers do receive more training about teaching students who have different disabilities, said Eric Johnson. He would know.

He’s finishing his third year as Yukon’s full-time itinerant teacher of the deaf. He works with students across the territory. Johnson, who has around 60 per cent hearing loss, meets with students one-on-one during the normal school day. Johnson works with students on core subjects, like math and English, to make sure they understand the information. He also sets up sound-field systems that are available in all 28 Department of Education schools. These systems help block out excess background noise, and can enhance every student’s classroom time – those with hearing loss or not.

It’s a big job. Johnson works with students in Dawson City, Haines Junction, Carcross and Watson Lake. He can’t see students every day. Some he only visits once or twice a month.

But it’s more than he received attending elementary and secondary school in Wisconsin. There was no teacher of the deaf in his schools. He didn’t even know such teachers existed until he was an adult, completing an undergraduate degree in speech pathology.

As a child, classmates made fun of his speech. They put gum in his hair. Friends were few and hard to find. He didn’t have deaf or hard-of-hearing friends until he was an adult, studying at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Washington, D.C.

Every student needs different supports, and Johnson works with parents and teachers to figure out what they need. There are two main ways of educating deaf children: teaching them to speak, or teaching them to sign. Johnson does both.

“I’m both in the hearing and the deaf world,” he said.

Some children learn to both speak and sign, but Johnson lets families make those decisions. He also can’t tell them if they should send their children to mainstream schools or schools for the deaf. That’s a choice each family has to make.

But at least they now have more options. It wasn’t always the case.

* * *

Ask Eileen Bird. She loves the Yukon, as does her youngest son, Neal, the only one of her three adult children still living in the territory. But most of his schooling happened Outside.

When he was nine, his parents sent him to the Alberta School for the Deaf in Edmonton.

“I can tell you that driving away from him watching us and waving when we had to leave him there just about tore my heart out,” said Bird. “But there was absolutely nothing here.”

The family tried to make it work in the Yukon. Bird, her husband and three sons first came to Whitehorse from Prince George, B.C., in 1969. Neal turned three shortly after. Both his parents loved the North, and when his father got a job in the Yukon they followed their dreams here.

But it was isolating for their young deaf son. In British Columbia, Bird tried to teach herself sign language through a correspondence course from the United States. It just seemed to cause frustration, she said. In Whitehorse, she continued to “fumble along.” There wasn’t a place where Neal could learn sign language, and it was hard for him to make friends outside of the family. His mother would show him the plants growing around Hidden Lakes. She’d let him see how strawberries grow, hoping he’d learn that way. But the family knew he needed more formal education.

When Neal was six, the family moved to Vancouver, where they were originally from. Neal attended Jericho Hill, a residential school for deaf and blind students. The school closed down in 1992, after stories about abuse became public.

“I didn’t want to (send him there), but I recognized that he needed an education,” said Bird. She knows about the abuse, but it didn’t affect Neal while he was there, she said. But she had concerns about how children were being taught in the schools. She wanted Neal to learn signed exact English in the classroom. In signed exact English, each word has its own sign. Its grammar and syntax are more similar to spoken English. Bird has no problem with children signing in American Sign Language when they’re out playing with each other, she said. But its grammar is closer to French, so it can be difficult for them to communicate properly outside of school. It makes sense for deaf people to have their own language, she said. But they need to be able to communicate with people who aren’t deaf too, especially in the workforce.

Regardless, the time Neal spent at Jericho Hill was hard for the whole family. A year later, they returned to Whitehorse. Neal didn’t have a lot of supports in school here, so he went to Edmonton at age nine.

When her marriage ended a few years later, Bird moved to Edmonton with her second son. Neal lived at home, but continued to attend the school for the deaf. He finished his high school education in Calgary, where some classes were integrated and others weren’t. He’s lived in cities across Canada, but now calls Whitehorse home.

* * *

Getting supports for people who are deaf has been a slow process, said Bird. Until last September, when the government hired Amanda Smith as a full-time American Sign Language interpreter, there were no interpretive services here. Smith’s presence has brought some relief to Bird, she said. Now she knows there’s someone to help her son at doctors’ appointments, for example.

Every parent wishes they had done things differently, and raising Neal came with struggles, she said. But she’s proud of him. Once, she asked him if he would want cochlear implants so he could hear. He refused, she said.

Neal may have been the first deaf person she met, but he has always been her son, treated the same as her other two boys.

“I wouldn’t have traded Neal for another child,” she said.

And regardless of where or how children are educated, that’s the message students need to hear.

For Tremblay, home was just as isolating as school.

Despite the abuse, despite the frustration, he found himself looking forward to returning in September, he said. He had friends there.

During the summers, he had problems communicating with his parents and hearing sisters. He became a difficult child, he said. But he felt worse for his sister. She couldn’t hear at all, and Tremblay often communicated for her. Making friends was hard for both of them. She painted, but he would go fishing.

“I just felt like it was a better life alone, by myself fishing, doing my own things, not worrying about hearing people, or struggling with communication, things like that,” he said. “I just chose a path for myself.”

Living with these childhood memories can make him tired, said Tremblay. He could write a book about his time at school. But it wouldn’t be a happy story, he said.

His wife is also deaf, but their son is hearing and speaks and signs. If his child was deaf, he wouldn’t force them to speak.

“Look at me now,” said Tremblay. “I have no chance with communicating with my parents; they’re not alive. And I wish to tell them everything, but I can’t.”

Parents need to accept their children are deaf and learn their language, he said. “Sign for your deaf child and make them happy. Let the deaf child look at their parents and see that their parents value their language.

“Deaf children need a friend,” said Tremblay, “and the first friend that a deaf child has is their parents.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

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