When I was growing up on the Kamloops Indian Reserve, kids pretty much had full reign of the old residential school grounds.
There was a functional in-ground swimming pool out front, where our parents would often drop us off on summer weekdays before heading to work at the band office or one of a handful of offices in the old rectory.
Between cannonballs at the pool and lying down on the steel top of a nearby well to warm up in the sun, kids would explore the mostly empty and unused edifice nearby, which was largely unused except for the few offices and a cafeteria. We knew that the red brick building, as we referred to it, had been a residential school, but that didn’t mean anything to us. What moved us was the knowledge that bad things had happened to children there. Very bad things.
As we raced in the building’s downstairs corridor, only the brave ran past the old boys’ bathroom, where many swore they had seen a little boy crying near the big round urinal in the middle.
On the opposite end, in the girls’ wing, we would flood the row of tubs and slip and slide past the sinks, then wait in the basement kitchen for the amazingly warm and welcoming Laura — who had been a student there — to serve us lunch, before the adults came to buy theirs. We would sneak peeks past her smiling face to where we imagined the dumbwaiter was, because we had heard that children used to be put in there and left, stuck between floors and within the walls in the dark, when they were "bad."
Years later as a teenager, while working late at a summer job in an office upstairs, I stopped cold as the hairs on my arms stood up in the heat of the British Columbia Interior. I listened, frozen, to the sound of weeping, coming — seemingly impossibly — from within the walls.
Marks of children left behind
A heritage park and museum that celebrates Secwepemc culture and educates people on our history from our perspective now sits just below the school in an old apple orchard. I was a landscaper there one summer and stored equipment in a small worn shed on the property.
One day, while trying to escape the heat and the prying eyes of my strict boss, I closed the door of the shed behind me and sat down on the lawn mower for a smoke. It was surprisingly cool in there. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I realized for the first time, after weeks of going in and out, grabbing this and putting that away, that there was writing on the walls.
It was children’s writing — dialogues between little ones.
Later that day when I crossed paths with the complex security guard, who told me he had once been a student though I think at a different residential school, I asked him about it. Willy was a fun guy. He would cover for me while I snuck away to play stick games, and he was always joking around. But when I asked him about the shed and what I had seen, a shadow came over his face.
He told me they used to put "sick" and sometimes "bad" students in there, and the kids communicated through writing because they weren’t allowed to talk. Some people said kids who had died at the school were buried in the orchard.
No escape from the memories
My cousin was a student at the last residential school to close in Saskatchewan in 1996. The last one in B.C. closed before that, and I was lucky to have never been a residential school student. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t know what happened there. That doesn’t mean I didn’t and don’t still hurt for those, including my own relations, who attended.
In 2013, I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national event in B.C., held at the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds in Vancouver. The main arena was filled with information booths and vendors, but at the far end was an area for public testimonials, closed off only with trade-show curtains.
Anyone could go in there and have an audience, which included representatives from churches at least. Emotional and painful testimonials were broadcast live through speakers. On one day, I went and sat alone in the bleachers behind the curtains. Again, I heard weeping coming from within the walls.
I listened while a woman cried, recounting how she had been raped by priests. A scared little girl, who was separated from family and friends, who didn’t understand what was happening to her or why she was being hurt again and again. A girl who did not, who could not — and who still did not — understand why she was attacked by grown men who were allegedly there to "save" her.
The woman talked about how she got to leave residential school when she was an adolescent. She went home and began abusing drugs and alcohol to try and escape the memories that haunted her.
She became pregnant at 13, abandoned her child for the drink and continued to try and drown out her pain. Describing years of torment, years of destroying herself and her family, she said she was only then coming to terms with what had happened and how she had dealt with it for so long.
Sometimes, between sobs, she screamed out in anger.
Crossing the threshold
I didn’t know her, I never even saw what she looked like, but I cried with her and I am angry for her. I am angry for all of those who suffered at the hands of opportunistic abusers at residential schools across this country, and I cry for all of them.
The effects of residential schools on the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors and on other children in the community continue to be profound. We need to heal as a people, yes, but how do you move on from the knowledge of what happened? How do those abused and those who continue to be abused through a vicious cycle move on from their suffering?
And how do I teach my children this history? How do I tell them about the suffering of our people, without them, too, hurting and getting angry? How do any of us do that?
For years, from the time we were little kids until we grew up, we used to sit on the stairs at the main entrance to the red brick building, visiting and laughing. I never thought about what those stairs represented. I never thought about the thousands of tiny feet that had crossed that threshold, decades before me. But I do now, all the time.