When the Williams family of Skwah First Nation heard that unmarked burial sites had been found at Kamloops Indian Residential School last May, they packed up their canoes and drove them to the school grounds. The family knew firsthand the horrors that had unfolded in that red-brick building, and had relatives who’d gone there and never returned. They would hold ceremony on the grounds, the empty canoes serving as vessels to bring the spirits of the missing, Le Estcwicwéy̓, home.
It was a few days after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had made their announcement that the probable graves of as many as 215 children had been discovered in an orchard at B.C.’s largest residential institution – news that woke up the world to the brutal legacy of Canada’s residential school system. At that point, the international media crews, dignitaries and crowds of mournful Canadians hadn’t descended yet on the Kamloops school, which still solidly stands perched on the banks of the Thompson River. Few people outside of the communities whose children went to the so-called school had arrived.
On the front field, two rows of brightly coloured little shoes and Boots, accented by solar powered lawn lamps, had been lovingly arranged – an act of remembrance that was repeated across the country. Across from the building’s front door, there was a monument with a bronze plaque containing some of the names of the children who were students at the school. Bouquets of flowers, teddy bears and tobacco ties were already piling up around them.
As the sun set on the grounds, the family’s pickup trucks pulled up at the side of the field. Nearly three dozen members of the extended family spilled out – brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles and little ones – and began to take down a long, thin, wooden white and green painted canoe from the top of a truck. Some wore orange Every Child Matters T-shirts, others wore cedar hats and traditional Stó:lō regalia. While some began to drum, the men picked up the canoe on their shoulders and carried it out to the middle of the field.
Those watching rose to their feet. This was ceremony. The blood of our ancestors awakened, present with each pound of the drum.
That was when cousins Russell and Justin Williams began to speak, in clear, powerful, voices, mournfully demanding that the spirits of their family’s children, and any others who wanted to come with their friends, climb in the canoe and come to Skwah First Nation in the Fraser Valley. Justin spoke to the children’s captors, whose malevolence still gripped the students buried in the apple orchards across from the soccer field, then more warmly, pleadingly, he told the children that it was okay. They no longer had anything to fear. They could move past what was keeping them there and they could climb into the canoes, there was room for them all. They could leave this horrific place, return to the lush richness of the Stó:lō forests, in the valleys at the bottom of the great mountains, to the warm embrace of the family once lost and never found.
The Williams family had come to bring home Le Estcwicwéy̓. The missing. They had no idea their cry would be heard across the province.
The trauma Canada’s residential school system inflicted on Indigenous people has left spiritual wounds. No family is left untouched.
The Williams family, who live in the Skwah First Nation community, deep in the lush Fraser River Valley near Chilliwack, knows this to be true. Three generations were sent to places meant to steal their identities, land and lives.
Two days after they sent their canoes to Kamloops to pick up their children’s spirits I visited them in their community. We sat outside, under a small white canopy, on the banks of the Hope Slough. For generations, this water has served as their highway and as a hunting ground for fish, beaver and mink. Bald Eagles nest in the tall trees on the slough’s edge.
Justin’s father Gary, now 84, was one of 15 siblings – nine brothers and six sisters. Now, only five remain: Gary, Beverley, Annie, Stephen and Leslie. The seven older siblings went to the Kamloops school. The younger kids went to St. Mary’s Mission Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C. One brother, Victor, drowned in the Slough in a canoe race when he was six and didn’t attend a residential school.
All in all, Bev says, 40 immediate family members were sent to three of the most notorious schools in B.C.: St. Mary’s Mission, Kamloops and Kuper Island Residential School in the southern Gulf Islands. (Indian Residential School records show that by 1916, nearly half of the 264 students who attended Kuper Island – dubbed Alcatraz Island in later years – had died.) All three schools were run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary the Immaculate – an order that oversaw schools where some of the most heinous crimes against children took place, including separation of siblings, harrowing disciplinary measures and physical and sexual abuse. A dozen of the family members never made it home.
The Oblates ran 48 of the 139 Indian Residential Schools across the country that were funded by the Canadian government but run by Christian churches. The schools were blatant, violent, tools of assimilation – Canada wanted to clear the land of Indigenous people, and the churches wanted to save those whom they perceived to be savages, to indoctrinate as many new members to the Christian faith as it possibly could.
Residential schools in Canada began operating in the mid-1880s. The last one closed in 1996. Under the Indian Act, a racist piece of legislation that was introduced in 1876, it was law that all Indigenous children attend the schools.
At its peak, 500 students lived at the large, three-storey Kamloops school. Its imposing design mirrored those across Canada – the entranceway was in the middle, to the right was the girls’ dorms, and to the left, the boys. A chapel was attached to the school and a working farm, including a notorious apple orchard, occupied much of the students’ time. Trucks used to patrol the surrounding Kamloops communities, snatching First Nations children working in the fields with their families.
In 1910, the principal complained about not receiving enough funding to feed the students. Survivors say they were always hungry – left with only rotting vegetables or half-dead apples to eat along with runny porridge. No meat or protein.
Bev went to the Kamloops school from Grade 1 to Grade 12. She left in 1961, and for years, used alcohol to numb her pain, keep at bay what she saw and experienced. “I don’t have too much memory of there,” she said softly. “I went to the visitors reunion of the students who went to Kamloops and … a lady came and asked my name. I told her and she started crying. She said, ‘You are still alive. I used to look after you’ … I understood what that lady said. She looked after me. She wouldn’t let me be abused.”
The only thing that stopped Bev’s alcohol addiction, she says, was getting back in the water, fishing for salmon and ooligans – a small fish with a mineral rich grease essential to the Salish diet. It was the canoe, gliding in the river, that led her back to who she was before she went to Kamloops. “When we were young, the water was our playground. We were always in the water,” she says.
The river helped her stop drinking when she was 24.
One of her family members, her cousin Roderick Charlie, wasn’t as fortunate. He’d gone to Kamloops too – years before Bev did. After she came home, she remembers her aunt still patiently waiting for Roderick to arrive. But he never did.
Roderick was a mystery, an unknown face in old photographs to Gary. Roderick was about six years older, and Gary can’t remember much about his cousin beyond the fact that he often wore a round brimmed hat.
“We knew about him because when I was really young,” he recalls, “I would see pictures, and I’d say, ‘Who is he – with the hat?’ He kind of dressed that way.”
Roderick was not the only Williams family member to be lost. The siblings say their Uncle George died mysteriously in 1916, when he was six. Their memories are fading, but they believe he went to Kamloops too.
George, Bev says, was her grandfather’s favourite, always lauded as being the best at whatever he did. Her own dad was left constantly trying to measure up, fill the gap left by George, a gap never filled.
The Stó:lō Nation has an official record of George Peter Williams. Their registry has his parents’ names, his date of birth and death, and a note that he’s buried in the Skwah cemetery. But no one knows what happened to him or how he ended up there. At the end of the mostly blank record, a printed line reads: “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Gary Williams lives in a two-storey, split level house in Skwah First Nation. The eagles outside are loud and scrappy. Across the street, the river runs swiftly. Old photographs spanning more than seven decades are on the wall, tucked into wall hutches. A widescreen TV is the centrepiece of the family room, along with Mr. Williams’ easy chair.
He is a quiet, soft-spoken man with kind brown eyes. His home is a gathering place. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren constantly bomb in and out of the front door – heading to the kitchen for snacks.
“Before she passed away, my mother wanted to find answers as to what happened to Roderick,” Gary recalls. “It was the last thing she wanted.”
All the family knew was that he had tuberculosis. But he seemed to vanish from Kamloops, which was about 250 kilometres from their home community.
When the siblings heard the news of the discovery of Le Estcwicwéy̓ in Kamloops, they felt numb, unsure of what to do. Bev immediately thought of Roderick and her Uncle George, of her own experience, and those of her brothers and sisters, all the trauma sewn throughout the generations that came from that school, the red brick monster.
“All these bodies they found,” Bev cried. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Gary felt helpless. “I felt really bad. I knew some of our people were there.”
During his own time at Kamloops, he’d always wondered about the apple orchard. He never liked being there, always had an odd feeling when he was told to go work there. The area was patrolled by Brother Joseph, a man the children all feared. Brother Joseph didn’t let the kids go down to the orchard on their own – it was strictly off limits unless they were picking apples. Others remember stories of Brother Joseph, and, of the big, black dogs he used to sic on the children if they wandered down to his domain.
Gary wasn’t surprised when anthropologist Sarah Beaulieu and a team from the University of the Fraser Valley found indications of shallow little graves of Le Estcwicwéy̓ in the orchard. He’d always wondered “why the apples grew so big.” (Last July, Dr. Beaulieu updated the findings to say approximately 200 probable burial sites had been found on the initial seven acres searched, but this number could go higher as they begin to use the radar throughout the 200-acre property. This latest round of searching has just resumed and is expected to take a month.)
His thoughts also turned to the Mission school, where two of his sons, Gary Jr. and Rick, had gone. The two boys were sexually abused there. They both led lives steeped in torment and were in and out of foster care. Gary Jr. was 32 when he died by suicide in 1994 and Rick, 57, died of health complications due to addictions in April, 2021. Mr. Williams lives with the pain of two lost sons, of what happened to them, of the cycles of trauma that marked their lives.
“They did not die naturally,” he says. “Who do you blame? No one wants to take the blame.”
There is a First Nations graveyard in Deroche, a small town 20 kilometres east of Mission, just around the corner from where a bustling Saturday’s farmers market is held. It is a small plot dominated by a giant, white wooden cross in the centre. There are dozens of wiry, iron crosses that give no indication of who is buried underneath. At the base of the cross, there is a plaque, dedicated to 10 of Gary’s relatives, all of whom died as children. There is no mention of their names, how they died or when.
Gary’s son Justin says it was a spur of the moment idea to travel to Kamloops last year to bring the missing children’s spirits back. Because the Williams family are the keepers of much of the canoe teachings in Skwah, they decided to bring their canoes to retrieve their loved ones. “We would take them as far as we can,” Justin says, “and they could go home from there.”
The Kamloops announcement kicked the complacency out of a nation. Canadians could not believe it. Not here. But the truth is, if you are Indigenous, you have always known – you have grown up with stories of lost family, of violence and disappearances matched with a quiet apathy by the institutions, laws and governments that are expected to protect and dole out justice, but do not. What it is like to be a second-class citizen in a land of plenty. What it is like to have your children stolen to be raised by white families or have them attend schools with graveyards.
After the news broke, Canada woke up. For months, Canadians bought orange T-shirts that said, “Every Child Matters,” shrines of tiny shoes appeared on the steps of provincial legislatures, at former schools and in town squares. Statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and other “founders” of Canada were boxed up or torn down. Canada Day lost its meaning. Even the hardest hearts realized they couldn’t take the day to eat hotdogs and ice cream and celebrate the greatness of a state that sanctioned the murder of children while it looked away.
The call from the Williams family, on the lawn of Kamloops, reached the spirits of many children and their relations. First Nations and territorial organizations began to mobilize. Gatherings and ceremonies were held at the sites of former schools, from Six Nations to Lac Seul First Nation; from Saskatoon to Thunder Bay.
Then the numbers came. First Nations made announcements that stunned the world. The Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan discovered 751 potential grave sites. St. Joseph’s Mission School in Williams Lake B.C., signs of 93 possible graves. Alberta’s Kapawe’no First Nation, another 169 abnormalities in the ground assumed to be gravesites. And for the Williams family, a discovery that stirred family memories again: More than 160 probable unmarked graves in the area that was once home to the Kuper Island Residential School.
It wasn’t until this past month that the family finally learned something about Roderick: Historical records discovered by the Wall Street Journal pointed to him having been buried in Victoria. “Return of Death of an Indian” is how the sparsely informed death certificate for Roderick Charlie reads. Obtained from B.C. Vital Statistics Agency, it states that Roderick was 11 when he passed away on May 28, 1941, at the Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. The certificate says he was “single,” a Roman Catholic and a member of the Skwah Indian Reserve. Jubilee was a centre for hard-to-treat TB cases.
Gary says the family had no idea that Roderick had been in hospital. Nor, as the “Physician certificate cause of death” notes, that he had been in Jubilee from July 5, 1940 to the time he died of complex tuberculosis almost a year later. It was in his thoracic spine, with abscess; sinus formation along with pulmonary tuberculosis and tuberculosis of the lymph glands. The record notes he was sick for one year and contributing causes of death were acute toxemia and spinal paraplegia.
Gary had been a TB patient too – he spent four years in Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in Sardis, B.C. It was typical for hospitalized First Nations children to be left for long periods of time. The sanatoriums received more government funding the more patients they had. For decades, the Indian Act made it against the law for First Nations people to refuse medical treatment or to try to leave a hospital on their own accord. The sanatoriums were like prisons.
He remembers he took 29 pills a day and was threatened with jail if he did not take his treatment. “It was no picnic. You didn’t know if you’d ever get out. And there was no cure.”
Coqualeetza had been a residential school from 1889 to 1940, but it closed to become the Coqualeetza hospital. Canada was full of Indian hospitals at the time, places where substandard medical care was doled out by overworked and understaffed medical practitioners. The hospitals were created because regular hospitals didn’t want Indians in them. Indigenous patients who were taken in were often placed in the basement or in spaces with poor ventilation. Segregated hospitals became a popular solution. By the 1960s there were 20 Indian hospitals across Canada.
The historical records the family has now seen indicate Roderick was buried at Songhees First Nation. His parents and family were never told that he had been violently sick with TB, the disease painfully contorting his young body, and, that government officials had decided he should be buried at the closest Indian reservation they could find. That was Songhees, adjacent to Esquimalt, a comfortable, coastal suburb of Victoria.
If Roderick was buried at Songhees, it is likely other children are there too. But Genevieve Weber, outreach archivist and community liaison with the B.C. Archives, says there is no easy way of calculating how many were buried in the community using vital events records – or death registrations – as burial location is not a field in the archives’ database. “It would require in-depth research, reviewing registrations one by one, to get a sense of the numbers.”
And that is the dilemma every single First Nation community finds itself in today. Agonizing searches of land, distant memories and old photographs in a search for children, family members and friends who simply vanished when they were supposed to be at “school.”
In March, Tk’emlups Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir was part of a delegation of Indigenous representatives selected to meet with Pope Francis to seek a guarantee from the pontiff that he would abide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and agree to come to Canada with an apology.
She went to Rome to give messages to him from community members and, invite Pope Francis to come to Kamloops.
“There is never a day that goes by, or a couple of hours that goes by, without having that as part of the conversation, because there is still so much more to do, so much healing to take place, accountability and healing – next steps,” she said in the basement of the Best Western hotel in Rome after the end of a long, gruelling day.
“At any given time, 500 children attended Kamloops school,” she says. “It would be significant for him to come and listen to those voices and how it is still impacting them and the generations.”
Days later, when he did apologize to the Assembly of First Nations delegation, he never committed to coming to Kamloops. Instead, earlier this month the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the Pope would visit Edmonton, Iqaluit and Quebec City. The trip is scheduled for late July.
I asked Kukpi7 Casimir if she still has any faith left.
“I do have faith. I have faith and I have hope. To me [the residential school legacy] is devastating, horrible, hard to fathom … but it also has to be resolved. That comes with truth, it comes with accountability, and it comes with justice.”
She believes a large part of that is the Catholic Church and the Canadian government handing over all records. In June, the Oblates said they would open up all their files to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Survivors want answers. They want to know why their children or family members didn’t come home. That is what we need to find out.”
She knows her people are tired and wary about what happens next – especially given that a year has now passed since the Kamloops discovery. She implored and scolded them to stop booing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he appeared at the May 23 service of remembrance in the Pow Wow arbour adjacent to the apple orchard. Many are still angry over his decision last year to ignore the invitation he received from Kukpi7 to be a part of the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. Instead, he spent the day with his family in Tofino, B.C.
“We thank and appreciate him being here,” she said after the May 23 event. “Today we can all choose to learn to support each other and continue working together to shape the future, one that has to be inclusive, one that has to honour our Elders. We must embrace life. It is so important to be able to shape the future for our children … we need to continue advancing. Those steps for us are about our healing centre and our Elders lodge.”
Later, in a scrum with reporters, the Prime Minister said they were working on what the community needs going forward, but no firm commitments were announced.
Gary Williams and his family decided not to attend the May 23 pow wow. They spent the weekend reflecting on their families, the past and, more importantly, the future.
As the keepers of the canoe teachings in Skwah, they’re deeply involved in the community’s annual spring canoe races. This May, as this year’s event began, members of the community sang and drummed songs. Then Russell Williams spoke.
“Watch after your children today. That wind is pretty big out there right now, one canoe has already tipped,” said the race announcer. This was the first large gathering since the COVID-19 pandemic began and everyone from surrounding communities came out. Cars and trucks lined the sides of the river banks. Stands selling bannock, salmon and curly fries and T-shirts were making brisk sales. “We truly thank you for being part of this day,” the announcer continued. “We are going to have our family thank you with a song and we’ll have a song for the water. We always acknowledge the water here because we are people of the river … we wear that name with pride. That is our backyard, we all grew up on that river.”
From her seat on the shore, Bev Williams watched with pride. She was surrounded by her dozens of nephews and nieces. She loves to watch the youth on the water and the revitalization of the canoe races. The schools didn’t erase them or their culture. They are still here. “They are learning the ‘Hope Slough Stroke,’” she said, her bright eyes twinkling as she watched the youth boats take off like a shot down the river.
With research from Stephanie Chambers
Residential schools: More from The Globe and Mail
Dr. Kisha Supernant is a Métis archaeologist helping to lead the search for unmarked graves in Canada. She spoke with The Decibel about what remains to be done a year after the discovery at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Subscribe for more episodes.
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