Connie Walker was hanging out in her backyard, having a fire with a few others, when she checked Facebook and saw a lengthy post from her brother. It was May, 2021, shortly after the revelations of unmarked graves found at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and people were sharing their stories on social media. From her brother’s post, Walker learned her own story.
Their father, Howard Cameron, was an RCMP officer in Saskatchewan. Working one night in the late 1970s, he pulled over a car that was being driven erratically. When he walked over and saw who was inside, he dragged the man out of the car and beat him up. He recognized this man, the post explained: It was the priest who had abused him when he was a boy at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake.
“I instantly felt sick,” Walker, who had had no knowledge of any of this, told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview. Stunned, she took a couple of days and then called her brother, who was much closer to their father. That conversation was the first of many: a personal journey that Walker takes in the second season of the podcast she makes for Gimlet Media.
This story “has changed the way I think about my life,” Walker says in Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s. Season two of Stolen premiered last week with two episodes where Walker, who is Cree from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, begins to learn the truth about her father.
“My dad was stolen from me. Because his childhood was stolen from him. By residential school. But also by a man in a black robe,” she says in the podcast.
Howard Cameron, who was 58 when he died in 2013 – lung cancer – was from the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation Reserve near Duck Lake. He was six years old when he was sent to St. Michael’s. There he was sexually abused.
As a parent, he was largely absent. He was also angry, violent, Walker says. Her parents split up when she was seven.
“This school has had such an impact on my life and my family. And I’m just learning this now,” says Walker, 43, during a Zoom call from New York. “It feels wrong ... the fact that it’s 2022 and we’re just learning the truth about what happened at St. Michael’s.”
The pain of learning these horrible details about her father, coupled with not having known this in his lifetime, sent her searching. “I felt like the only way to get through that was to shine a light on it. Okay, what do I not know?” she says. “I don’t know where he went to residential school. I don’t know how long he went. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know who this priest is.”
For the series, the team – which includes two other Indigenous journalists, Betty Ann Adam and Chantelle Bellrichard – spoke with nearly 30 survivors of St. Michael’s, many of whom were contemporaries of Cameron’s. It becomes a detective story: not just looking for the truth about what happened to him and the other children there, but searching for the people responsible.
As the series continues – episodes are released on Tuesdays – the stories come to life, and the trail gets warmer. It’s revealing, riveting. Walker delivers it all with such openness, even as devastating details emerge – like when her aunt tells her about how the starving kids at St. Michael’s were sometimes fed scraps: apple peels and bread crumbs thrown on the floor; the children having to scrounge for them. “No!” Walker reacts in the moment as she hears this.
A former CBC journalist, Walker has long reported on Indigenous issues, including the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the Sixties Scoop – explored in depth during her 2018 CBC podcast Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo. In 2021, the first season of Stolen investigated the disappearance of a young Indigenous mother.
Walker, who lives in Toronto, employs trauma-informed reporting, approaching her interview subjects with extreme sensitivity. She doesn’t want to cause harm with her questions. But the reporting for Surviving St. Michael’s has taken this practice to another level. “The weight of that feels 10 times heavier when it’s your own family and it’s their stories and experiences,” she says.
At the same time, this has allowed her to posthumously repair her relationship with her father, by better understanding him. “To learn about his experience at that residential school has really shifted how I think about our relationship and ... what he must have been going through when I was a kid when he was violent and abusive,” she says. “Those are the things that loomed large in my mind for most of my life.”
It has also been frustrating, especially getting information about who exactly inflicted the abuse at that school. As Walker points out, this information has already been gathered through the residential schools settlement process – but her team was unable to access it.
“How can we talk about reconciliation until we know the truth about what happened in the schools?” says Walker, who was able to track information down nonetheless, through research. “It’s shocking, it’s infuriating, it is heartbreaking that this has only been uncovered now.”
Also newly released
Veteran CBC journalist Duncan McCue’s new podcast series, Kuper Island, is immediately shattering. B.C.’s notorious Kuper Island Residential School, sometimes nicknamed Alcatraz, was home to many horrors.
“This was where they burn all the little children, the little babies that were born; that were thrown into the incinerator and they were burned there,” a survivor recalls another student telling him shortly after he arrived.
McCue, who is Anishinaabe, follows the stories of four children who were sent there. Three survived. One did not.
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