This article contains a personal account of abuse endured or witnessed by children at residential “school” that may be triggering. It mentions suicide and violence against children including: sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.
When Jack Kruger, a residential school survivor living in Syilx territory, heard the news about the children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, he says he wasn’t surprised.
“We always said they were there,” says Jack. “Maybe this time they will listen.”
On May 27, Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the remains of 215 children in their home community, on the former grounds of KIRS, the church-run residential school.
“Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children,” says Casimir in a statement.
KIRS formed part of a broader system run by the federal government and church organizations between 1874 and 1996. The system was designed “to eliminate Indigenous cultures and, through assimilation, cause Indigenous peoples to cease to exist” — according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) at the University of British Columbia.
An “estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were removed from their families, homes, languages, and lands” and placed in these institutions.
‘I want everyone to know the stories I have of residential school’
On a fall morning in 1956, Jack says a police officer and a priest arrived on his doorstep to escort him to a train station where he boarded a train. When he got off, he says he was transported by cattle truck to residential school.
“I was told that they were sending me to school, and I didn’t know what school was. They said it was a good place,” says Jack, who is a Penticton Indian Band member.
Jack was six at the time. He was sent to St. Eugene’s residential school — which was located just north of the City of Cranbrook in southeastern British Columbia — along with his two nieces.
Like KIRS, St. Eugene’s was run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in 1969, shutting it down a year later, according to the IRSHDC.
“The police told my parents, ‘Your child has to go.’ My dad had no experience of what residential school was like, so he sent me,” Jack tells IndigiNews.
In 1920 the Indian Act was amended to make it “compulsory” for Indigenous children ages 7-15 to attend either a day school or a residential school, according to an Indian Affairs Annual Report for that year.
“We were taken in by train, against our will,” he says, “When I arrived, I got backhanded for speaking my language.”
Jack tells IndigiNews that he quickly learned not to speak nsyilxcən, the Syilx language he spoke regularly before he was taken from his family — because children were regularly punished for speaking their language.
“They told me it was the devil’s tongue,” he says.
Jack says he experienced physical and mental abuse and witnessed sexual abuse while at St. Eugene’s. Two or three times a night, a priest or a nun would come into the children’s dorms and sexually abuse them in front of the rest, he says.
“Let this be a lesson to you. God is going to cleanse your soul,” Jack remembers hearing the priest saying before abusing the children.
“After seeing that every night, I didn’t ever want to speak my language again,” he says. “I wouldn’t let my dad or any Elder talk to me in Okanagan, they had to talk to me in English … I did that for 40 years.”
The litany of violent abuses against Indigenous children in so-called residential “schools” has been thoroughly documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in its final report. In some cases, children were heavily beaten or confined in cells or “punishment rooms.”
“My best friend in residential school hung himself because of the sexual abuse he experienced,” Jack says. “I went after the priest for sexually abusing my friend.”
As punishment for attacking the priest, Jack says he was thrown into a little storage room full of broken equipment, physically abused by the priest and kept there for two weeks, without food or water.
“I seen many residential school survivors were thrown down the stairs, hung by our ears,” he says. “They would give us a needle and put drugs in us to see how it worked.
“It became normal to us, you know, the trauma.”
‘What about ones who were never found?’
Residential schools were in operation for more than a century and many Indigenous children died there. Because many records were destroyed, it’s hard to say exactly how many.
According to the TRC’s final report, until the 1950s Indigenous children in these institutions “died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population.”
While Jack was attending St. Eugene’s, he noticed classmates starting to disappear regularly.
“We knew some of them were dead,” Jack says. “Especially after two days, three days, you are always guaranteed that the person would never come back.”
He says he and other students were suspicious about a neighbouring pig farm, which they were told not to go around.
“At night we would see the priest go to the farm, and we knew the priests were feeding the pigs the children,” Jack says. “If we went over there, we would be fed to the pigs.”
“They also had what they called a furnace room. We were told never to go over there and we were not allowed in that area,” he says.
One night, Jack recalls he was playing in the furnace room when he heard voices.
“I peeked around the corner and the priest was yelling at two boys to throw that little child’s body in the furnace,” he says.
“[He] said they had to do that because the child had the devil in them,” Jack says. “He said that burning them up would clear their soul, so the child would be able to go to heaven.
“It seemed like the priests always had a story to tell.”
It was also known for the priests to throw the children into the river beside the residential school, Jack says.
Jack says he is speaking out about his experience because he wants people to understand that others are still missing.
“The reason I’m telling the stories, I want the children and their spirits to go back to the Creator, not to be lost out here.”
‘Native spirituality helped me most’
On Easter Day, after spending two years at St. Eugene’s, Jack remembers mustering up the courage to tell his father what was truly going on.
“We learned to be quiet. I came back for Christmas one year, and I didn’t say nothing to my parents, and I wanted to, but you were scared of the priests.”
He says he was brainwashed and had no self-confidence or recollection of who he was. He says it wasn’t until late 1980 when he became interested in learning the language and reconnecting with his identity as a Syilx Okanagan man.
“I think Native spirituality helped me most when I started to go back into ceremonies,” he says.
He also acknowledges that his wife Joanne and their four children have supported him throughout his healing journey.
“Joanne helped a lot, too, telling me to be strong and telling me to not let the priest win, and my kids help, too, in their own way,” he says, “I think it’s family that really helped.”
Jack tells IndigiNews he wants everyone to know the stories he has about St. Eugene’s.
“It is not to make anyone feel guilty or to make anyone feel attacked or bad. All I want to do is let the truth be known, some of the horrors that happened.”
“The thing I want people to realize is that their religion is good. Just that the human beings that carried the robe, the black robe, they were the ones that were wrong, and not the religion,” he says.
“So let’s not attack on anybody.”
Cranbrook is located within the regional boundary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nelson, so IndigiNews reached out to Bishop Gregory Bittman, but he was unavailable for comment. IndigiNews also reached out to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and they did not respond by deadline.
Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.
EDITOR’S NOTE: IndigiNews used first names in this story out of respect for survivors. We understand some survivors have negative associations with last names as a result of their dehumanizing use in so-called residential “schools.”