A Living Nightmare: Kamloops Indian Residential School

A rock with the message 'Every Child Matters' painted on it sits at a memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Over the past week we've aired pieces from AM 1150's Brittany Webster about the realities of life at Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

In case you missed a segment, we've packaged up the series in honour of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

With survivor testimony thanks to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, here is AM 1150's Brittany Webster with her latest series - "A Living Nightmare: Kamloops Indian Residential School".


Go back to your seven year old self. 

A cattle truck pulls up in front of your house and you are dragged, likely kicking and screaming, not knowing when or if you'll ever see your family again. 

You are punished for speaking the only language you know and life as you once knew it was gone forever. 

That was a reality for First Nations children attending Kamloops Indian Residential School; a reality for Indigenous children across Canada. 

By 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent for the department of Indian Affairs at the time, wanted to get rid of what he called the Indian problem and played a pivotal role in expanding the residential school system by making it mandatory for all Indigenous children aged seven or older to attend a residential school. 

Hector McDonald is a former student. "I believe I almost hated my dad and my mom for sending to the school here, but I always think they were going to be sent to jail if they didn't send me to school."

Once children arrived at the school they were separated further from their family, unable to mingle with their siblings. "When my sister would walk around the block here I would wave at her and I would get a strap for it."

Children were taken from their families and upon arriving at the school they were punished for not speaking a language they had never been taught. 

Jeanette Jules attended KIRS in the 60s. "Our grandparents spoke Secwepemctsin to us, but most of us could understand it but the speaking of it daily was not allowed here. My dad's words to the priest were, 'It does something to you when you're five, six years old and somebody continuously beats you up everyday, all day long when you can't speak English. That does something to a little kid.'"

As stated by Scott, the objective of residential schools was - "to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada" - and abolishing Indigenous languages was seen as a way of achieving that. 

Girls were also forced to cut their hair short and children had to dress in European style clothing. Any sense of identity was stripped from the children the moment they stepped on the cattle truck, and the brainwashing of generations had parents sending their runaway children back to the people who believed it was their job to uphold the supposed mission of residential schools - to "kill the Indian in the child."

Christina Rose Casimir lived that reality. "I went from grade 1 to 10 and then I ran away from school because I couldn't take it anymore. I just couldn't handle it. My mom had died January 3rd, 1959... of a heart attack. Like I said, my dad really believed in education so he made me go back."

Mental, emotional, sexual, physical. Abuse came in all forms for the students, and no matter how hard they worked or how well they did, there was little reward.

Jules recalls the evening routine of one security guard. "Security guy would come into the senior girls' dorm with his flashlight and he'd be flashing it on the girls' faces. You'd start hearing girls whimpering and covering up their faces, because who was he going to choose? Who is he going to decide that he is going to go and take?"

It wasn't just the girls subject to sexual abuse from school staff.

Don Seymour has since passed away, but recorded his testimony. He attended KIRS as a day scholar in the 70s. "Me and my friend who was also a day scholar, we were sexually abused by a priest and the two supervisors. They were all men."

Seymour says they'd be pulled away during lunch several times a week. "That supervisor would abuse me and then he'd abuse my best friend while I had to pray for my sins. I was told I was going to hell... While I was praying he would sexually abuse my friend."

Some staff knew the children were being abused and tried to do something about it, but as Jules explains, pushback wasn't welcome. 

"One of the new supervisors that we had that year was Mrs. Leslie. Mrs. Leslie, they tried to fire her because she brought that up to the priest and told them 'Why are you allowing these guys to come in and go and take these young girls?'"

Christina Rose Casimir ran away after finding the school too much to endure, but her father sent her back. "From the Indian school they taught us that we're bad, no good. But who was going to tell them they were bad and they were no good to us? They were awful to us. We were lonely little children who didn't have their parents."

Attending a residential school was nothing short of a living nightmare for many children, and Kamloops Indian Residential School was one of Canada's largest, enrolling around 500 children by the 50s. 

Living conditions for children attending the Kamloops Indian Residential School were nothing short of horrific. 

Many survivors describe the food served as slop, while they watched staff benefit from the labour they put into farming and agriculture. 

Survivor Annie Parker remembers it well. "I guess those that went to school in my time or any other time remember the stews we used to have and that's why most of us got so fat. I know I was. They said, 'Annie what are you eating in that school?' and I said, 'You come and see.'"

The lack of food and nutrition became the driving force behind crime culture - stealing, trading, and blackmailing just for an apple.

"We'd swipe some bread for somebody and we'd give it to our friends. We'd cut pieces off and give it to each other. That's how we learned to survive. It's a shame, but at that time we weren't - we call it now survival."

At night children slept in a large room with rows on rows of beds, overcrowded and unsanitary. 

Canada's former chief medical health officer, Dr Peter Henderson Bryce, tried to better living conditions with multiple recommendations in 1907, but they were denied due to cost and Bryce was forced into retirement. 

No longer under the control of the Canadian government, Bryce made public all his recommendations in 1922 and titled his report "The Story of a National Crime".

Mortality rates at residential schools across the country were extremely high. 

Bryce reported on average 24 percent of children died from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases - with one school's rate as high as 75 percent -but living conditions remained the same. 

Survivor Alanna Manuel said this at the 2013 hearing in Kamloops. "It's a great shame of all of Canada. You know, you come here and you sit and you listen to our stories, all of our suffering, all of the abuse and you go home and say, 'Oh those poor Indians, they should do something.' Well Canada, you let this happen."

Sadly, she's not wrong. 

Government officials ignored the deplorable conditions of residential schools for decades, with the schools in BC running from the 1860s to the 1980s and the final residential school in Canada officially closing in 1996. 

The residential school system was originally meant to bridge the education gap between white children and Indigenous children, but the actual school learning was minimal on a daily basis. 

Mary Birchall is a Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor. "We didn't go to school there. We spent three bloody hours learning about the Catechism."

Much of the days were spent working, cleaning, and learning the Catholic faith, while things like reading, writing, and arithmetic were pushed to the background. 

Hector McDonald began attending KIRS at age 11. "I learned a lot in school here... I knew how to read, but I don't how to write. I learned how to cheat, steal, hate."

Despite the lack of proper teaching, survivor Jeanette Jules took with her some advice from her grandmother who attended the school in the early 1900s. "In order for us to truly fight back and to do things in the way that we need to we need to be able to read and write what they're giving us so that they can't tell us one thing and then write something down."

Some survivors were able to find escapes through the things they were able to learn and do.  

David Archie attended Kamloops Indian Residential School in the 1940's. 

Having never seen electricity before, at nine years old it looked like magic. "Fourteen years old I was given the custodian job of changing lightbulbs. I was right in my element."

Day School survivor Dolly Thomas found her escape in dance. "We used to have dances. That was the best thing. I thought that was really cool because I was a really good dancer - I still am. I can still cut the rug!"

On rare occasions, students were even able to make a name for themselves, like Roger Adolph. 

Adolph turned fighting into boxing at Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

He later won the Golden Gloves in 1964, 1965, and 1966, in Tacoma, Portland, and Seattle before turning pro. 

Upon his retirement from boxing a few years later, Adolph served as chief and a strong leader in his community of St'at'imc Nation.

There is enough evidence to prove life at Kamloops Indian Residential School was degrading and horrific. 

More than four decades after the school officially closed, the bodies of 215 children as young as three years old have been discovered, buried in unmarked graves and hardly spoken of. 

And thousands more bodies are being discovered at former residential school sites across Canada. 

The horrific life residential school survivors faced has rightfully left some with a great deal of hate. 

Survivor David Archie had this to say at the 2013 Hearing in Kamloops. "I have a bone to pick with the British. I made sure that it was the British people that were at the end of my fists or my work boots. When I smashed their heads on the sidewalk and knocked them out and I almost killed them, there would be blood coming out of their face. I was really angry. This rage came from the residential school"

Archie says he has since learned to forgive, but the memories never go away. 

So how do we move forward in a better direction? 

Charlene Bearhead, director of reconciliation at Canadian Geographic and former National Coordinator for Project of Heart, says education is key to doing better in the future. "The reality is that we have thousands and thousands and thousands of Canadians, I think the stats the other day showed that two-thirds of Canadians still don't know about residential schools, which is shocking and unbelievable. Or they didn't know up until the time of Kamloops, even after six years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

Bearhead says we owe it to indigenous children and all children to teach the truth. "Every one of them will be a leader in some way... and we owe it to them to tell them the truth so that they can make the decisions that are best based on all the facts, not on the false reality that we are trying to brainwash them to believe so that they can perpetuate it to cover up the things like we're hearing right now."

As the stories fall off front pages and the number of unmarked graves found at former residential school sites grow - how can we make a difference?

 Y’il’mix’m or chief Christopher Derickson of Westbank First Nation says it takes more than just conversation.  "If you're wondering just on a personal level what you can do to support Indigenous peoples at this time, I think just moving past the social media activism is the first step. A post to your socials is thoughtful and I'm sure heartfelt, I think it's more about taking real action in your personal life to learn about the Indigenous peoples. And if you have contact with Indigenous peoples, just start to acknowledge and not hide from the difficult conversations that we need to have as a country."