Warnings abounded about dire conditions at Fraser Valley residential schools

Government and church officials in the Fraser Valley took children from their parents, hired sexual abusers to supervise children, disregarded accounts of staff violence and poor food, crowded boys and girls into unsafe facilities, and intimidated those who raised concerns

By Tyler Olsen | June 2, 2021 |3:50 pm

This story first appeared in the June 2 edition of the Fraser Valley Current daily newsletter. It is about residential schools. A 24/7 crisis line available for residential school survivors and their families who need counselling support: 1-866-925-4419.

The Fraser Valley’s two residential schools operated for a combined 168 years and inflicted the same horrors endemic to a nationwide system that had a fatality rate for children that exceeded that of soldiers in the Second World War. That truth is laid out in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which rigorously documents the failings of the schools and the harm they exacted on Indigenous people both nationally and on a local level, with upsetting details about St. Mary’s in Mission and Coqualeetza Institute in Chilliwack. The report also made it clear that Canadians need to learn more about the impact of a system specifically designed to “get rid of the Indian problem.”

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It shows how government and church officials here, in the Fraser Valley, took children from their parents, hired sexual abusers to supervise children, disregarded accounts of staff violence and poor food, crowded boys and girls into unsafe facilities, and intimidated those who raised concerns. The report is a damning account of racism, neglect, parsimony, and the abdication of personal and societal responsibility.

Coercion was fundamental to the residential school system across Canada and in the Fraser Valley. In 1900, a school employee went to the home of an absent Chilliwack student (Read more; clicking the ‘Read more’ links to this story will take you to the page in question in the report; please give some time for the document to open). The parents said the man “entered their home without warning and tried to run off with their daughter as if she were ‘a dog.’” After the mother and two other men intervened, the man left, only to return the next day with more help to take the girl away.

Across the system, there were continuous complaints of insufficient and rotten food at schools. Such complaints were made about both Fraser Valley schools, though many parents were unable to check the schools themselves; in 1939, half of all students came from villages in Northern BC or on Haida Gwaii. Mary Englund, a student at St. Mary’s, later remembered: “There was… never much of knives because you didn’t get no butter and you didn’t get no meat to cut up, everything was grounded up. And green tea. We never got milk except skim milk to put in your tea.”

Complaints met by racist incredulity

In Chilliwack, in June 1940, a school farmer attempted to punch a boy who was slow to assemble for evening prayers (Read more). If the punch had connected, it would have seriously injured the boy. The boy dodged, and tried to hide. But the farmer tracked him down and used a piece of harness to thrash the boy—a common form of punishment employed by the school. The former employee who raised concerns about the event was warned that when others had done the same they had “only made more trouble for themselves.”

Complaints from Indigenous people were frequently met by racist incredulity. In 1959, members of the shíshálh (Sechelt) First Nation raised concerns (Read more) with Indian Affairs about a staff member who may have been “making improper advances to the boys.” The concerns about a supposedly “well-mannered man” were dismissed out of hand, the band members were condemned, and in 1966 the man moved to Mission to work as a supervisor.

At approximately the same time, a man named Keavin Amyot (Read more) was convicted of “committing an act of gross indecency on a child.” Soon after, he was hired as a supervisor at St. Mary’s as well. Amyot stayed at the school for at least 2 years. Former students in Mission say they were abused by Amyot, but no charges were laid before his 2003 death. Another former St. Mary’s employee, Gerald Moran, was also later convicted of 12 charges of sexual abuse.

The entire report documents a range of systemic and personal failings that failed to adequately feed, house, and protect generations of boys and girls.

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In 1928, conditions were so bad (Read more) at St. Mary’s that the government deputy minister recommended its closure until a new school could be built. The Catholic Church that ran the school objected, and only temporary classrooms were built. The building was a fire trap; an inspector suggested “rope fire escapes” as one potential stop-gap measure. The next spring, an Indian agent said the school needed to be replaced. He laid the blame on the feet of the federal government, which had promised to build a new school but hadn’t.

The man, who promised to stop complaining, wrote: “I absolutely refuse to assume responsibility for anything that may happen to the school and pupils in the future.”

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report concluded with 94 calls to action. You can read those here

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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