The sound has haunted Glen Jack for 50 years.
As a boy at Kamloops Indian Residential School, the footfall of an approaching priest would be the first warning of the horrors to follow. In bed, Mr. Jack would pull up the covers and pray that the older man would pass by.
“That is my biggest fear,” said Mr. Jack, now 61 and living in Vancouver. “You hear the footsteps, and then you can hear the swish of the dress, the gown that they wore. They would do that, and then they would take me.”
Over the years, he would tell dozens of people about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse he endured at the school, which he was forced to attend from the age of 5 to 13. No one – not police officers, not friends, not even his own mother – believed him.
The news in late May that the remains of as many as 215 children had been located at the Kamloops site sparked new calls for accountability for the horrors inflicted upon Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools. On Thursday, the anthropologist who conducted the search said the number of probable gravesites was closer to 200.
The revelations came as no surprise to Mr. Jack; he had witnessed a burial at the school and had been telling people about it for decades. The news compelled him to share publicly the tale he had told so many times before to deaf ears.
“I want people to know what really happened,” he said.
In the months since, searches at other former residential school sites have reportedly turned up more than 1,000 additional unmarked graves, including 751 at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Indigenous leaders are putting pressure on Ottawa to fund an independent investigation to reveal the truth of what happened at the schools, which a 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called “a key component of a Canadian government policy of cultural genocide.”
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Anthropologist explains how she concluded 200 children were buried at the Kamloops Residential School
Mr. Jack and his older brother, Michael, members of the Upper Nicola Band, spent their early childhoods living with their grandparents in the community of Shulus, near Merritt, in B.C.’s Interior.
Their grandfather would take them swimming in the river every morning, and the boys would take in traditional land-based teachings in their native Nlaka’pamux language. Mr. Jack calls those the best years of his life.
In August, 1965, the family went uptown to an Indian agent’s office, with Mr. Jack’s grandmother emerging in tears. They had been told the boys would soon be taken to residential school.
It was a threat the agents followed through on the following month, showing up at the family home with RCMP officers who handcuffed the boys and led them to the back of their patrol cars. Mr. Jack was five years old; his brother had just turned 7.
Upon arriving at the school, the children were told to put their belongings into brown paper bags and line up to have their heads shaved. Then the priests stripped away their names; Glen Jack became “128.”
“A guy was screaming in my face and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” said Mr. Jack, who spoke no English at the time. “My brother had to explain it to me, what they wanted me to do. And that’s when the beatings started, because we were speaking our own language.”
The beatings would come regularly – for speaking Nlaka’pamux, for not making his bed neatly enough, for missing a spot on the tiled floors that he was ordered to scrub with a toothbrush. The early morning dips that had been the highlight of his childhood ended when he and his brother were caught heading back from the river and beaten then, too.
Sometimes the abuse would come in punches and open-palmed slaps, Mr. Jack said. Sometimes the priests used a strap. He remembers being thrown down the stairs and a priest standing over him afterward, laughing.
“They kept saying I was nothing but a heathen savage, and dirty, and stupid, and what I was doing was wrong – it wasn’t God’s way,” Mr. Jack said. “Everything had to be God’s way. They kept putting that in our heads.”
A few weeks into the school year, the physical assaults became sexual. As Mr. Jack lay pretending to sleep, he would hear the sound of approaching footsteps and then a priest would appear at the foot of his bed: “128, get up.”
After raping him, the priest would force Mr. Jack to kneel beside him.
“They would say, ‘Pray for forgiveness for what you made me do to you.’”
Dozens of times, Mr. Jack and his brother tried to flee, only to be stopped by police officers who spotted them on the roadway.
“We told them what was happening, and then they would take us back to the school, go into [the principal’s] office and tell him what we said,” Mr. Jack said. “He would tell them that we’re lying, and the police would leave, and then he would beat us with his strap.”
During one escape, the boys had just passed the school’s hockey rink and barns when Mr. Jack’s brother signalled for him to stop. About 40 feet away, he saw two older boys digging graves. Beside them were two small bodies.
“We went around them,” Mr. Jack said. “We still tried running away that night. Cops caught us, we told them and they didn’t believe us.”
In Grade 3, Mr. Jack was permitted to spend holidays with his mother, who lived in Oroville, Wash., and his five siblings. He said it was good to see his brothers and sisters, but that his relationship with his mother “wasn’t good.”
“I told her what they were doing to me there, and that I didn’t want to go back,” he said. “And she told me I was lying and beat me and sent me back.”
Mr. Jack stayed at the school through its transition to a day school, in 1969. The abuse continued, with some periods so painful that Mr. Jack has completely blacked them out.
He left the school a broken teenager. His brother, Michael Jack, died by suicide in March, 1978. His sister, Monica Jack, disappeared weeks later, shortly before her 13th birthday. Her remains were found 17 years later, and a man named Garry Handlen was convicted of her first-degree murder.
Mr. Jack drank heavily and tried to take his own life at the age of 21. He quit drinking soon after.
In his late 30s, he went to trauma counselling and was connected to programs for residential school survivors. With time, he came to better understand that the numbness he felt was a coping mechanism. He learned to consciously feel empathy for the first time.
But the trauma persists, and the work is continuing. Crystal Manfron, a close friend of Mr. Jack’s, has seen the lingering effects.
“Even to this day, when he’s in the bath, sometimes the water is so scorching hot. He’ll be sitting in there scrubbing his body [because] they used to tell him he was dirty,” she said. “And he has had really bad nightmares, to the point where he kicked the wall and broke his toes and stuff. His dreams are really bad.”
And nearly 50 years and 350 kilometres removed from the school, Mr. Jack continues to be haunted by the sound of footsteps.
“I don’t really like hotels because you hear somebody walking down the hall, and that’s the sound of the footsteps of the priest coming down,” he said.
On a muggy evening this past May, after a community barbecue in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Mr. Jack wandered over to the street corner where he often meets with friends. His uncle approached out of the blue.
“Did you hear the news?” his uncle said. “They found bodies in Kamloops, at the old school.”
Mr. Jack stood in silence as a flood of memories washed over him – of the abuse he endured at the school, of the many times he told people what had happened, of not being believed. After a few moments, he texted his mother. She had already heard.
“She told me that she was sorry for what I went through,” Mr. Jack said, his eyes welling with tears. “I’m glad that she finally believes.”
The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.