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‘We got hit all the time’: Human Rights Tribunal hears of abuse at Catholic day school

WARNING: This story contains details of abuse.

Richard Perry, 65, still has scars from abuse he said he suffered at the Immaculata Elementary day school more than 50 years ago — abuse he alleges the RCMP failed to fully investigate because he is Indigenous.

“We got hit all the time for not talking ‘right’, not doing things right,” he told the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal this week at a hearing in Burns Lake, B.C., more than 900 kilometres north of Vancouver and 220 kilometres northwest of Prince George.

The panel was in the community from May 1-12 to hear testimony from Perry and other former students, who recounted stories of physical and sexual violence and who said, decades later, that the RCMP failed to properly investigate their stories.

Six of the survivors launched a human rights complaint against the RCMP in 2017. They want the force to apologize for how it handled an investigation that began in 2012, into whether criminal charges were warranted over abuse at the school at the hands of a former teacher who can only be referred to as A.B., by order of a publication ban.

The RCMP has denied any bias, conflict of interest or mishandling of the investigation.

Lifelong impacts of abuse

While separate from the residential school system, federal Indian day schools and federal day schools were also part of a policy aimed at assimilating Indigenous children, and often had religious affiliations.

That was the case for Immaculata Elementary in Burns Lake, which was operated by the Catholic Church and stayed open into the 1980s.

A Catholic church building with an alter outside
The Immaculata Catholic Church sits beside an empty concrete pad, where the Immaculata Day School used to be. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

Perry said he was a young boy when he arrived at the school in the late 1960s, excited to learn.

Instead, he said staff and teachers beat him, hit him in the head repeatedly with basketballs and wooden metre sticks, and strapped him on the palms with a thick leather belt. 

He never learned to read or write in English, he said, slipping in and out of his first language, Carrier, throughout his emotional testimony. 

In an affidavit from 2012, he said teachers called the students “demons” for speaking Carrier.

Richard Perry points to the scars on the palm of his hand,
Richard Perry says his hands, once much smaller, were hit repeatedly when he was a child for speaking a dialect of Carrier, the language of the Lake Babine First Nation and his first language. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

His sister, Myrtle Perry, helped translate his testimony, saying repeated blows to the head have had lifelong impacts to his cognition. 

Just days after his testimony, Myrtle told CBC News her brother had a stroke. He missed the remainder of the in-person hearing while recovering in hospital in Vancouver. 

After Grade 6, he left school and never came back.

The boiler room

Over the course of the past two weeks, Perry and more than a dozen former students laid out allegations of abuse at Immaculata, saying they kept silent for decades out of fear and distrust of the RCMP. 

A fixture in the memories shared with the tribunal was the boiler room: hot, loud, and where, the survivors said, children were taken one by one. They recalled hearing screams, knowing it would be their turn soon. 

A blue exterior door
This door leads to the boiler room, still in use at the Immaculata Parish in Burns Lake, B.C. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

Those who testified said the physical abuse was brutal and relentless. Some also recalled sexual abuse suffered by children as young as 6. 

They also recounted stories of being dragged back to the school by police, watching their parents get arrested, and in at least one instance, seeing a caregiver report abuse in the 1960s, with no recourse.

Some say they were disbelieved by their parents, because they didn’t think priests, nuns, and brothers of the Catholic Church would engage in abuse. 

Ronnie West, 62, a hereditary chief and former student, was visibly frustrated while being cross-examined by RCMP lawyers.

“There seems to be a law for white people and then there’s a law for Native people,” he said.

A man stands in a blue shirt with glasses
Hereditary Chief Ronnie West attended hearings of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Burns Lake, B.C., and acted as a witness for the complainants. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

The investigation

That feeling was reinforced a decade ago when Perry and other survivors hoped their stories would finally be told. Freelance journalist Laura Robinson, who also testified at the tribunal in Burns Lake, published the allegations in the Georgia Straight in 2012 after, she said, she heard dozens of stories. 

Robinson also received eight signed affidavits from survivors, swearing their stories were true. 

Beverly Abraham, 64, was one of the eight that signed an affidavit. She later took her allegations directly to the RCMP, and members of the ‘E’ Division North District, headquartered in Prince George, were assigned to look into them. 

A woman in purple sits on a stoop
Beverly Abraham, a former student at the Immaculata Day School, alleges she was abused by staff members as a child forced to attend the school. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

The RCMP concluded its investigation in 2013 after saying they determined “reasonable and probable grounds” did not exist to recommend charges stemming from the abuse allegations levelled by former students.

In their opening remarks at the tribunal, RCMP lawyer Whitney Dunn said the police force is “not the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Instead, he said, they are bound by the expectations of the Criminal Code.

But the students testified RCMP did not seem to take their claims seriously.

Abraham said when the RCMP spoke to her, they asked her repeatedly to take a polygraph test, implying to her that they believed she was lying.

Richard Perry said when two investigators knocked on his door in 2013, they asked about his time at the school and took photos of the scars on his head and hands, but he never heard from them again.

Perry said Mounties did not offer an interpreter or other accommodations for his English literacy levels. He was never offered access to Victim Services, and RCMP never told him what happened in the investigation.

Graying hair on a mans head from behind, a scar is visible through the hair
Perry turned around to show the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal the scar through his graying hair, still visible more than 50 years after he says he suffered abuse at the Immaculata Day School. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

Lawyers for the complainants told the tribunal that this represents differential treatment for former students because they are Indigenous.

They said the RCMP failed in their obligation to adapt their investigative methods to meet the needs of Indigenous survivors of abuse, including acknowledging Indigenous people’s pervasive distrust of police.

The RCMP will call their own witnesses later in the hearing, but in cross-examination of the survivors in Burns Lake, police lawyers have focused on journalist Robinson’s role, asking if she ever told the survivors what to say in interviews, or while preparing the affidavits. 

In her testimony, Robinson called the line of questioning racist in assuming that Indigenous people do not act on their own accord. 

To date, survivors have expressed gratitude to Robinson for showing interest in their stories.

Systemic changes demanded

In their filing, the survivors say no amount of new policies or training within the RCMP can dismantle systemic discrimination.

Instead, they are asking for the RCMP to hand over all abuse cases involving Indigenous survivors to an independent investigative team made of elders, members of the relevant First Nations, and those unaffiliated with RCMP with expertise in trauma-informed investigative practices.

A cedar bough on orange and brightly coloured handkerchief, a box of donuts in the background.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society set up a quiet room down the hall from the tribunal, to provide support for those who say they were abused as children at the Immaculata Day School. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

The alleged victims are also seeking an apology from the RCMP, and compensation of $20,000 for each of the school’s former students who experienced abuse.

With their time in Burns Lake wrapped, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s panel has scheduled the remainder of their hearings to be held via video conference from May 23 to June 1, followed by another session from June 12-22.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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