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Kamloops residential school survivors react to discovery of 215 children at Indian Residential School

Clayton Peters in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where he suffered various forms of abuse between 1967 and 1977.Alen Douglas/KTW

By Allen Douglas/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Kamloops this Week

KAMLOOPS – Shock and sadness came over residential school survivor Clayton Peters upon hearing the announcement that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on grounds near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School he attended.

“I grew up in there and I knew all those kids, you know. I knew some that went missing,” said Peters, who attended the school from about the ages of 10 to 17 between 1967 and 1977.

On May 27, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced it located the remains using ground-penetrating radar, with plans to identify and eventually repatriate the children.

Peters, 64, heard the news last week over the phone.

“I never knew they were doing that. I didn’t know they were killing kids. I thought they were running away. I thought they were getting away — that’s what I thought,” Peters told KTW in front of the former residential school as tears formed. “They didn’t get away, they were put over there.”

He recalled being prohibited as a student from venturing down to the area where the remains have since been found.

The revelation brought back bad memories of his own experience and added sorrow for Peters, who has been managing his grief with the help of a counsellor and his wife, Sherry.

“Sometimes you think you’re not in somewhere, but when this happened like that — you were right here, you were in the whirlwind,” Peters said.

Peters said he lived with his parents and 10 brothers on the Tk’emlups reserve near the Mount Paul Way area when he was taken to residential school. He now wears a necklave with pictures of his mom, dad and his deceased daughter on days he needs strength.

Peters spoke of how his father became involved in an armed conflict with police when a social worker came to take him and his siblings away.

Both his mother and father, Nancy and Peter, struggled with addiction issues stemming from their own time at the residential school and Peters believes that experience caused his dad to react the way he did. His father was convinced to put down his gun and was arrested, while Peters was caught minutes after attempting to run away.

He remembers being choked upon arrival at the residential school by a priest who seemed mad police had to chase him.

“And he said, ‘If you ever run, we’ll send you far away. You’ll never get found again,’” Peters recounted.

From a window at the top of the school, Peters said he tried to find his porch light, worried for his mother, left alone in the house.

He described beatings and mental abuses at the school over the years — not seeing some members of his family for decades or ever again.

He told KTW feeling at times as though he wished he wasn’t native, that his skin colour was different, that there was something evil about him, as the priests had told him. He talked about how his experience made him hate God, religion, the church, white people and society, and how other school survivors helped him recover over time and reverse those feelings. 

At the residential school, Peters said he experienced abuse by the staff on a daily basis.

He described getting hit with a thick strap or tossed in a dark room as punishments — feeling helpless without his parents amidst the abuse.

“You were treated, always, with disrespect,” Peters said.

He said he would get a beating for refusing to bow and was once kicked in the back by a priest for being unable to kneel. The kick injured his tailbone.

After that, Peters decided to escape on foot with his brother and was briefly reunited with his parents.

“I yelled ‘Mom! Dad!’ and they heard us and we ran down that hill and I got to hug my mom and dad for one minute and then the cops took us back,” Peters said, adding he was never allowed to visit his parents during summer vacations or holidays.

Kamloops’ residential school was opened in 1890. A few years later, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic Church congregation, took over administration.

In 1969, control of the school was handed to the federal government, which operated it as a residence for students attending local day schools until 1977, when the residential school was closed.

Peters described his eventual reunion with his parents as the most beautiful event in his life.

“To hold my mom and to tell her I loved her and I missed her. And my dad, we looked at each other and he knew. He was here before. He knew what I went through,” Peters said.

Asked what the response needs to be to the announcement of the discovery of the chldren’s remains, Peters believes the building should be torn down and something positive, such as a park with amenities for children, built in its place.

“Let them run and laugh here. I’d like to see that before I die. I’d like to see this [building] down,” he said.

As for the Catholic Church, all Peters wants to hear is an admission it had a bad group of people that ran the place.

“They can’t all be like that can they?” he asked. “There was a priest up here the other day. I wanted to go talk to him and say, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s not God’s fault this happened. It’s those people that came to look after us here and what their goals were meant to be.’”

Peters said much racism still exists and needs to end.

“We’re not enemies,” he said. “We grew up in the same city, the same world.”

DAY SCHOLAR’S MEMORIES

Gus Gottfriedson, now 71, was a day scholar (student who attended classes in the day and went home at night) at the residential school in 1958 and 1959, when he was in grades 4 and 5.

He remembers plenty of verbal abuse, along with physical punishment.

“There was constant abuse, constant violence and that was too much for me,” he told KTW. He told his mom he did not want to continue going to the school and, for his Grade 6 year, he returned to Alan Matthews elementary (located at Battle Street and Sixth Avenue, where the Kamloops RCMP detachment is today).

Gottfriedson said the discovery of the children’s remains confirms “rumblings” he and others have heard through the decades, stories of students suddenly going missing and whispers of their deaths.

He said his time at the school included verbal reprimands and consistent slaps from the teachers.

Gottfriedson said he remembers one day in Grade 4 when his teacher, a Quebecois named Miss Savoie, was teaching the class French songs.

“I said to Miss Savoie, ‘I don’t know these songs. Where are our songs?” he recalled. “ I got cuffed in the head and sent to the cloakroom.”

The mandate of the residential school system, Gottfriedson noted, was to beat the Indigenous culture out of the students.

While noting he understands why other survivors wish to keep the residential school standing as a reminder and teaching tool, Gottriedson said his preference is that it be demolished.

“To me, it’s a monument to every evil that happened there,” he said. “It’s a constant reminder of what went on there. It gives me the creeps to go near there.”