'Far from home': Primary documents provide glimpse of life inside Kamloops residential school

As the country attempts to come to terms with the horrific discovery of remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in British Columbia, the truth about what happened inside those walls has been well-documented.

  • WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

A selection of documents, now of public record, provide a heart-breaking glimpse of what life may have been like for students attending the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated between 1890 and 1978, and was one of Canada’s largest residential schools, housing as many as 500 students during a peak in enrolment in the 1950s.

The Catholic Church operated the residential school from 1890 to 1969 when the federal government took it over and ran it as a local day school until 1978.

A week ago, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that a survey by a specialist in ground-penetrating radar discovered the remains of approximately 215 children who were buried at the site.

Since that announcement, there has been a renewed interest in addressing Canada’s history with residential schools and righting the wrongs that took place in these institutions.

While hardly complete, several excerpts from public records on the Kamloops Indian Residential School offer tiny glimpses into how authorities operated the school and treated the Indigenous children who were forced to live there.

HOW TO DEAL WITH FIGHTS

In a document stored in the United Church of Canada Pacific Mountain Region Archives, text of an address by Father Allan Noonan, the principal of Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1964, offers some insight into the administration’s approach to discipline in the school’s later years.

The address, which was prepared for a workshop for residential school educators and staff in B.C. and Alberta, shares strategies on disciplining children at the schools. 

“The child who has not learned implicit obedience at home is poor material for school. Yet, this is the type of child that we most frequently receive into our residential schools,” the document reads.

The principal continues by advising educators to avoid compulsion and forcing children to do things and instead focus on positive, indirect, and spiritual types of discipline.

“Corporal punishment now obsolete. Its passing I believe is due more to its ineffectiveness than to humanitarian ideals. I still favour corporal punishment for certain individual [sic] for very serious offences, but there would be rare occasions,” Noonan said.

Despite corporal punishment being out of date, the principal appeared to endorse violence as a resolution among older boys.

“Two high school boys get into a serious fist fight. These things happen. If you are looking after big boys you should be big enough and able enough to break such a fight up right away. You should never have reason to manhandle children, but you should be capable of it if the occasion arises,” he said. “When things have cooled down if the boys do not want to apologize and forget, put them in the ring with gloves and supervise a boxing match until both boys are too tired to care any more.”

Noonan added the boxing ring solution could be used for bullies as well.

“For a bully, this is good medicine too – let five little fellows with gloves on push him around the ring for awhile. The bully will get tired especially if he is made to box on his knees.”

CHRISTMAS ‘PRIVILEGES’

In a letter sent home to parents of the students at Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1948, the principal at the time, priest John Fergus O’Grady, said families would have the privilege of having their children home for Christmas that year.

“It will be your privilege this year to have your children spend Christmas at home with you,” he wrote.

 In the letter, which is preserved online by the BC Teachers’ Federation, O’Grady said children would be permitted to go home for the holidays as long as their families transported their children to the home and back to the school after the break.

“The children will not be allowed to go home alone on the train or bus,” he said.

The principal also stressed that children must be brought back to the school “strictly on time” and if they aren’t, the children will not be allowed to go home for Christmas the next year.

“I ask you to observe the above regulations in order that this privilege of going home for Christmas may be continued from year to year. It will be a joy for you to have your children with you for Christmas. It will be a joy also for your children and it will bring added cheer and happiness to your home,” the letter read.

HUNGRY CHILDREN

A display case in the Royal B.C. Museum shows evidence of the hunger Indigenous children experienced while attending the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The case houses two latch keys that were fashioned out of a sardine-can opener and a kitchen spoon by students at the Kamloops and Kuper Island residential schools.

“The chronically underfed children used these hand-made latch keys to break into the school’s food stores,” an accompanying placard reads.

A LONELY DEATH

In a record titled “RETURN OF DEATH OF AN INDIAN,” a 12-year-old girl’s death at Royal Inland Hospital in April 1931 in Kamloops is documented. The girl, Gladys Chapman, who was a student at Kamloops Indian Residential School, died from “acute dilation of heart,” with tuberculosis considered a secondary cause, according to her death certificate.

According to the BC Teachers’ Federation’s “Project Heart,” an ebook containing hidden stories from the province’s residential schools, Chapman “endured days of fevered suffering — coughing, bleeding, struggling for breath — all alone, far from home, with no loved one to comfort her.”

The girl’s death was one of thousands of children’s deaths acknowledged in the 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

“Gladys’s family members believe that she never would have died at such a tender age had she not been forced into the Indian residential school system,” the ebook reads.

In addition to neglect and abuse – physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual – the biggest threat to students at residential students was communicable disease.

“Underfunding, overcrowding, poor sanitary and ventilation systems, inadequate clothing, malnourishment, and a lack of medical care all contributed to epidemic levels of tuberculosis and other illnesses.”

ILLNESS

In a series of documents from May 1937, the death of an ill student at Kamloops Indian Residential School was recorded in statements from the principal, attending physician, the girl’s father, and the Indian agent who was the Canadian government’s representative on First Nations reserves.  

According to the school’s principal, the girl was taken to the school nurse and initially “put to bed and treated as other patients already suffering from measles.” A week later, she was taken to hospital where she died after three days.

The attending physician wrote that it was impossible to operate on the student’s head to relieve the thrombosis because she also had pneumonia and nephritis, or inflammation of the kidneys.

In an attached letter, the student’s father, who was also a band chief, asked the school administrators to notify the parent or guardian “at once” if another child is taken ill or requires hospitalization.

In a follow-up statement, the Indian agent said the principal of the school sent a letter to the girl’s parents three days before her death and they received no word from them. The agent said they called the parents on the morning of the student’s death and the parents arrived a short while later.

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.