My Most Memorable Interview With a Residential School Survivor

Perhaps the best aspect of my job is that it enables me to meet and speak with people whose lives are far removed from mine. That sometimes includes prominent politicians, business executives, athletes and artists. But often, my most memorable interviews have been with people who are neither famous, wealthy nor powerful.

Garry Gottfriedson is a prime example. A few weeks ago I traveled out to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia, where he is a member, to talk about his personal history and his often horrific experiences as a student at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

An educator who currently teaches writing at Thompson Rivers University, a poet who studied under Allen Ginsberg and a rancher from a rodeo family, Mr. Gottfriedson is a knowledge keeper in his community. He was as thoughtful as he was funny, in a dry kind of way, during a morning we spent up in the mountains along with members of his extended family.

As most of you know, the Tk’emlups First Nation jolted Canadians in late May with a preliminary finding that ground-penetrating radar had found the remains of 215 people, most of them very likely children, in unmarked graves on the grounds of the school. It offered few details at the time, in part because the search had not finished.

This week, the nation presented more details from its preliminary investigation, which was conducted by Sarah Beaulieu, an anthropology lecturer at the University of the Fraser Valley. For the past decade or so, she has worked on several projects using ground-penetrating radar to locate human remains, including a project for the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, which lent its radar equipment for the Kamloops school examination and for a search at the site of another residential school.

Two things emerged. First, Dr. Beaulieu reduced her estimate of the number of remains to 200 and said that most of the graves were very shallow. But, more important, she scanned only about two of 160 acres that make up the school site, specifically a former orchard where survivors said they had been made to dig graves. A child’s rib and tooth had also turned up in the area in recent years.

“This investigation has barely scratched the surface,” she said.

The presentation also discussed what might follow the searches at Tk’emlups and the sites of other residential schools across the country.

In particular, RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is among the many people now calling for criminal investigations into the lay staff members and the priests, monks and nuns who ran the schools. Because the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is following the wishes of Indigenous groups, is also the force that was used to make sure that Indigenous children attended the schools as required by law at the time, Chief Archibald called for the establishment of an independent investigative agency.

Chief Archibald said that she viewed the burial sites as crime scenes.

“We need some kind of independent investigator on this process, and we also need international examination into these crimes,” she said.

Three members of the Tk’emlups First Nation who attended the school took the emotionally fraught step of telling about their experiences at the Tk’emlups presentation. Their stories were moving, shocking and powerful, and I encourage everyone to watch them here (their remarks start at about 2 hours 4 minutes).

For me, the often Orwellian world of the schools was underscored by an anecdote offered by Leona Thomas, one of the former students.

“I was put into a dancing group that learned every ethnic dance except my own,” she said. “I knew how to 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 that the school had had a lingering effect on her life, including her continuing inability to speak her Indigenous language.

“I tried — I got so many beatings for speaking my language that I’m sure that there’s a subconscious block that just did not allow me to do it,” she said.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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