My most memorable interview with a residential school survivor
Perhaps the best part of my job is that it allows me to meet and talk with people whose lives are far removed from mine. This sometimes includes prominent politicians, business leaders, athletes and artists. But often my most memorable talks have been with people who aren’t famous, wealthy, or powerful.
Garry Gottfriedson is a perfect example. A few weeks ago, I visited the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia, of which he is a member, to talk about his personal story and his often horrific experiences as a student at Indian Residential School in Kamloops.
An educator who currently teaches writing at Thompson Rivers University, a poet who studied under Allen Ginsberg and breeder of a rodeo family, Mr. Gottfriedson is a knowledge keeper in his community. He was as caring as he was funny, in a dry way, on a morning we spent in the mountains with members of his extended family.
As most of you know, the Tk’emlups First Nation shook Canadians at the end of May with a preliminary finding that ground penetrating radar found the remains of 215 people, most of them were most likely children, in anonymous graves on the school grounds. It offered few details at the time, in part because the research was not complete.
This week, the nation presented more details of its preliminary investigation, which was conducted by Sarah Beaulieu, professor of anthropology at the University of the Fraser Valley. Over the past decade, she has worked on several projects using ground penetrating radar to locate human remains, including a project to the Canadian First World War Internment Appreciation Fund, who lent his radar equipment for the Kamloops school exam and for a site search of another residential school.
Two things came out. First, Dr Beaulieu reduced his estimate of the number of remains to 200 and said most of the graves were very shallow. But, more importantly, she only scanned two of the 160 acres that make up the school site, particularly an old orchard where survivors said they were forced to dig graves. A rib and a child’s tooth had also appeared in the area in recent years.
“This investigation has barely scratched the surface,” she said.
The presentation also discussed what might follow research at Tk’emlups and other residential school sites across the country.
In particular, RoseAnne Archibald, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is among many now calling for criminal investigations into lay staff members and the priests, monks and nuns who ran the schools. Since the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which follows the wishes of Indigenous groups, is also the force that was used to ensure Indigenous children attended schools as required by law at the time, Chief Archibald called for the establishment of an independent investigation agency.
Chief Archibald said she viewed the burial sites as crime scenes.
“We need some kind of independent investigator on this process, and we also need an international review into these crimes,” she said.
Three members of the Tk’emlups First Nation who attended the school made the emotionally charged decision to share their experiences during the Tk’emlups presentation. Their stories were touching, shocking and powerful, and I encourage everyone to watch them here (their remarks begin at about 2 hours 4 minutes).
For me, the often Orwellian world of schools was highlighted by an anecdote told by Leona Thomas, one of the alumni.
“I was placed in a dance group that learned all the ethnic dances except mine,” she said. “I knew how to do Irish jig. I knew how to do the eight hand reel. I knew how to do the Mexican hat dances.
Like Gottfriedson, Ms Thomas said school had a lingering effect on her life, including her continued inability to speak her Indigenous language.
“I tried – I got so many hits for speaking my language that I’m sure there is a subconscious blockage that just didn’t allow me to do it,” she said. . “Our identity, our dignity and our self-esteem have really been eroded.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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