The preteen girls would take turns with the towel in the bathroom of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School. One at a time they would wrap it around their throats and pull it tight. “We looked forward to it,” said the residential school survivor, whose name is redacted in the OPP transcript. “It was an escape.” The woman, by then in her mid-30s, was describing her horrific nine-year stay at the school on Fort Albany First Nation, near the James Bay coast, as part of an indecent assault investigation of one of its former nuns.
What she needed to escape, she told investigators, were the constant strappings and whippings, and the sexual assaults by a man she knew only as “the gardener.” “This shouldn’t have happened to us. They’re God’s workers, they were to look after us.” The transcript of the interview is among thousands of pages of OPP records from a sprawling investigation into abuse at St. Anne’s obtained by CBC News. The investigation began on Nov. 9, 1992, after Fort Albany First Nation Chief Edmund Metatawabin presented evidence to police following a healing conference attended by St. Anne’s survivors.
Over the next six years, the OPP would interview 700 victims and witnesses and gather 900 statements about assaults, sexual assaults, suspicious deaths and a multitude of abuses alleged to have occurred at the school between 1941 and 1972. Five were convicted of crimes committed at the residential school But from 2008 to 2014, the federal government omitted references to the OPP investigation, including the convictions, from the official St. Anne’s record, known as the school narrative, used during compensation hearings created by the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The school narrative is a key piece of evidence for compensation cases heard under the agreement’s Independent Assessment Process (IAP). Adjudicators who hear survivors’ stories can refer to the school narrative as one way to determine the veracity of a claim. In the case of St. Anne’s, adjudicators relied on a school narrative that said there was no record of sexual assaults or student-on-student abuse cases. The school narrative referred to only four recorded cases of physical abuse found in St. Anne’s records in the Indian Affairs Department archives.
(CBC) Yet, the federal Justice Department obtained the OPP files from the investigation in 2003 after a group of St. Anne’s survivors filed an abuse lawsuit in Cochrane, Ont., against Ottawa and the Catholic entities that ran the school. Indian Affairs also included a reference to the OPP case and the convictions in the St. Anne’s school narrative used during the Alternative Dispute Resolution process for settling compensation claims, which ran from November 2003 to September 2007, when it was replaced by the IAP. A 2014 ruling from the Ontario Superior Court forced the Harper government to disclose the OPP files and documents from the civil action in Cochrane to St. Anne’s survivors.
Litigation has continued following the ruling as it emerged some St. Anne’s survivors lost compensation cases because adjudicators doubted the veracity of their claims as a result of the incomplete record. Survivors want the Ontario Court of Appeal to force the government to turn over testimony transcripts from the Cochrane hearing. Some survivors have spoken out and written books about their experiences at the school, including, in some cases, being shocked in a homemade electric chair. While the names of the victims and perpetrators are largely redacted from the OPP files, they reveal the depth of abuse and torture at the school. St. Anne's Indian Residential School in the 1940s.
(Algoma University/Edmund Metatabwin Collection) St. Anne's Indian Residential School in the 1940s. (From a project titled We Live at School by Grade 3 and 4 students at St. Anne’s in March 1972. All of the survivors interviewed by the OPP during the investigation described suffering or witnessing multiple abuses — physical, sexual and psychological. Grey nuns and a priest with students at St. Anne's in the 1940s. (Algoma University/Edmund Metatabwin Collection) Grey nuns and a priest with students at St. Anne's in the 1940s.
(Algoma University/Edmund Metatabwin Collection) Nuns, priests and lay brothers would hit students with large straps, small whips, beaver snare wire, boards, books, rulers, yardsticks, fists and open hands, survivors told investigators. They also told investigators about being force-fed porridge, spoiled fish, cod liver oil and rancid horse meat that made students sick to the point of vomiting on their plates. One survivor, who was in her 50s at the time of her August 1993 interview with OPP investigators, said she remembered a staff member who targeted five girls for sexual abuse during her time at St. Anne’s, which lasted from 1951 to 1955.
The survivor, who began attending the school at age 11, said the staff member would take a different girl every night. “I remember hearing them boys, screaming,” she told investigators at the Taykwa Tagamou Nation band office near Cochrane, located about 120 kilometres north of Timmins. (Mildred Young Hubert/Archives of Ontario) We live here / At St. Anne’s School Some of us / Are from far away Like Winisk and Moosonee And some of us are only / From Fort Albany; We like school, But sometimes we are sad; We are wanting to see Our families / At home.
(We Live at School, Grades 3 and 4 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, March 1972) A survivor who attended St. Anne’s in the 1960s said an older student once lured him into the basement with the promise of a surprise. The survivor had described a life of harsh punishment at the school that was made worse by his dyslexia. The students started playing tug of war with him, with one group pulling at his feet and the other pulling at his neck, he told the OPP. In one OPP interview, a male survivor recalled that during the 1956-57 school year a nun ordered eight boys to hold him down as she strapped him 27 times.
In another interview, a woman who attended St. Anne’s between 1963 and 1971 described how a school supervisor would pick on certain children she considered slow and how she humiliated a girl by forcing her to wear toilet paper around her neck to class. (We Live at School, Grades 3 and 4 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, March 1972) Even after the 2014 court decision forcing Ottawa to turn over the OPP files to survivors, the Justice Department continued to use the incomplete narrative.
During his IAP hearing in July 2014, Justice Department lawyers relied on the incomplete school narrative despite possessing proof a priest mentioned in the compensation claim was a “serial sex abuser,” the survivor later alleged in court documents. The federal government’s handling of St. Anne’s-related documents is part of a pattern, according to filings before the Ontario Court of Appeal in the St. Anne’s disclosure case.
The survivors say the federal government has a history of “reluctant, contradictory and inconsistent disclosure of documentation of abuse in residential schools.” They provide several examples, including a case from 1998 where a former student of Port Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island sued Ottawa over abuse he suffered at the school. In 1994, the Indian and Northern Affairs Department refused to hand over documentation to an RCMP task force investigating cases in British Columbia, forcing the Mounties to obtain multiple search warrants for the department’s head offices in Hull, Que., according to the Court of Appeal filings.
Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) faced difficulty obtaining records of criminal convictions related to residential school abuse from Indian Affairs. (We Live at School, Grades 3 and 4 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, March 1972) The description of the electric chair varied but it appeared to have been used between the mid-to-late-1950s and the mid-1960s, according to OPP transcripts and reports. “I can remember we tall girls were in the girls recreation group and [redacted] came in and had the chair with him,” a survivor said in an interview with OPP on Dec. 18, 1992.
If you didn’t want to [reacted] would push you into the chair and hold your arms onto the arms of the chair.” The survivor told the OPP she was forced to sit on the chair in 1964 or 1965. One survivor, in an interview with police on Feb. 27, 1993, said two lay brothers made the students stand in a circle holding on to the armrests as one student sat in the chair. I am in school / In Fort Albany But when I see them in July I am very happy - [Redacted] (We Live at School, Grades 3 and 4 at St. Anne’s Residential School, March 1972) Outside St. Anne's in the 1940s. One survivor told police a boy was beaten to death in the 1940s or '50s for stealing a communion wafer.
The trio left St. Anne’s with a fourth boy in the early morning hours of April 19, 1941, but he returned to the school because he was told by the others he was too young to make the journey to Attawapiskat. They told the other students to keep the plan quiet as they gathered leftovers from meals to store in a flour bag they kept hidden for their escape. He said he and four other boys snuck out of the school three hours after the first group. The group of five returned to the school after another student caught up with them and told them a priest had noticed they were gone and ordered them back.
(From We Live at School, Grades 3 and 4 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, March 1972) The legacy of St. Anne’s is still felt from Moosonee to Fort Albany First Nation to Attawapiskat and to Peawanuck, which used to be known as Winisk but was destroyed by a flood. “I craved ... and was sick for love,” a survivor told an OPP investigator. St. Anne's residential school burning in 2002. (CBC) St. Anne's residential school burning in 2002.