Excerpt from Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada's Lost Promise and One Girl's Dream
"In the residential schools, the secrecy began at dawn: we were beaten from the time we first awoke. Speaking out against the injustice in letters home was also cause for punishment. We coped in whatever way we could, often by imitating our oppressors. At St. Anne's, the stronger boys beat the weaker boys either with their fists or tamarack branches. Sexual abuse was rampant too, with the staff forcing themselves on the girls and boys, and the students forcing themselves on each other."
-- Edmund Metatawabin
John Kioke told the boys in the dorm that he was going home. Like the other children, he had been taken from his parents the previous fall. Staying with his family hadn't been an option. If he hadn't been compliant the police would have been sent to forcibly take him away to St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany. But John Kioke was traumatized by life at the residential school. He wanted to see his mother. He was going to run away to see his parents in Attawapiskat. But their village was 100 kilometres north where the Attawapiskat River flowed into James Bay. He was only 14 years old.
Even at his young age, Kioke must have known that crossing the vast expanse of the James Bay lowlands in April was a death-defying experience. He was a child of the Attawapiskat Cree who lived in small groups of family-based hunters. The families lived out on the trap lines in winter and moved towards the coastal settlement following the geese migrations in the late spring.
What made this boy so desperate to get away from the mission school and return home to Attawapiskat at this most precarious time of year?
It was difficult to survive on this land of muskeg and rivers at the best of times. But in April, it was especially difficult. As the weather began to warm, the ice along the mighty Albany and Attawapiskat rivers fissured and pushed towards James Bay. During the spring break up, massive chunks of ice were thrust upwards by the pressure of the moving water. When these huge chunks jammed together along the river bends, they caused temporary jams, forcing the fast flowing water behind to back up resulting in huge flash floods across the flat lands.
What made this boy so desperate to get away from the mission school and return home to Attawapiskat at this most precarious time of year? We may never know.
What is known is that John Kioke wasn't liked by the priests. They had him pegged as a troublemaker. He wasn't quiet or obedient, and he didn't buckle under to their attempts to control him. In the brutal world of St. Anne's Residential School, it wasn't healthy to be seen as defiant.
Kioke talked his 12-year-old friend Michel Matinas from Attawapiskat and 11-year-old Michel Sutherland from the village of Weenusk (near the coast of Hudson Bay) into joining him in the escape. The boys had a narrow window to make their break because the mission dog team was away in Moosonee and so it would be difficult for the mission priests to track them down.
In the days leading up to their escape, they tried to squirrel away a few pieces of bread to feed themselves on their journey. As well, Kioke had ten arrows for his bow in order to hunt birds along the long walk home. They escaped on the night of April 18, 1941, and were never seen again.
St. Anne's Residential School was a world unto itself. The school was run by French-speaking Oblate priests with the help of the Grey Nuns. The post at Fort Albany had no phone and few outsiders ever visited the school. The roads in Ontario ended at the town of Cochrane. From there it was a 150-mile train ride to the port of Moosonee. From Moosonee the only way north was by barge in summer along James Bay or by dog team in winter.
In mid-June 1941, Indian Agent Dr. T. J. Orford and RCMP Corporal George Dexter stopped in for an annual visit in Fort Albany and learned that the three boys had disappeared. The police officer was concerned that nobody outside the mission had been alerted that the children were missing. The RCMP interviewed the principal Father Paul Langlois. The principal explained that steps that been taken to find the boys, but said the search had been unsuccessful. Corporal Dexter pressed the priest on whether the boys had been maltreated prior to their running away but Father Langlois swore there had been no incidents.
According to these parents, the boys were mistreated at the school.
Corporal Dexter then asked why the police had not been informed that they were missing. The priest claimed he had notified the resident Catholic Bishop at Moosonee of the incident but Bishop Belleau had decided not to pass this information onto the police.
The RCMP officer, along with the Indian Agent, then went to interview the families of the missing boys. While the father of Michel Sutherland in Weenusk was willing to accept the story told by the priests, the Kioke and Matinas families were far from satisfied.
According to these parents, the boys were mistreated at the school. Among the allegations that they shared with the RCMP and Indian Agent Orford was that staff had ripped up letters from children to the parents if they revealed anything that was going on at the mission school. They also stated that some of the children had told them that Father Langlois had warned the other students not to tell anyone anything about the details of the boys' disappearance or anything that had gone on at St. Anne's the previous winter. The parents also shared an allegation passed on to them by the children that the death of another child at the school had gone unreported.
The RCMP officer noted in his report that he and the Indian Agent took the side of the priests, telling the family "it was difficult to believe a child regarding treatment received in school." The RCMP officer noted that this comment didn't go over very well with the parents who declared they would never allow any more of their children to be taken to St. Anne's.
"There is no doubt that the children have perished, either by starvation or by drowning" wrote Corporal Dexter, "The whole affair is very regrettable and the parents [sic] indignation regarding the loss of their children is readily understandable."
The other issue of concern was the fact that Oblate Bishop Belleau had failed to inform the RCMP when the boys went missing. Bishop Belleau wrote to the RCMP to reassure them that his failure to alert authorities that boys were missing was a good-natured mistake and in no way a sign of any wrongdoing.
"I frankly confess that I cannot understand how any accusations of negligence could be substantiated against the Father Principal of the school," the Bishop wrote as he tellingly described the missing boys as a case of "desertion."
Little came from the inquiry.
By the summer of 1942, the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa had learned of the incident. The Department wasn't pleased to learn through other channels that three boys had gone missing over a year before and nobody informed them. Indian Affairs official Phillip Phelan wrote to Orford demanding an explanation as to why the Department had been kept in the dark. In the end an inquiry was ordered with a three man committee made up of the Indian Agent, the school principal, and RCMP Corporal W. Kerr.
Little came from the inquiry. The Sutherland family from Weenusk attended the hearings, as did one of the families from Attawapiskat. The official report, prepared by Corporal Kerr, stated that the two parents who attended were satisfied with the inquest findings and "they believed everything possible had been done, now that they heard the different witnesses give evidence."
However, the actual evidence supplied contradicts Corporal Kerr's conclusion. In the statement prepared for one of the parents it was recorded: "I am not sure that sufficient search was made for my son and the other boys."
The report noted that the parent then went on to testify that he had been told that the priest had ordered the children not to speak of what happened regarding the runaways. During this testimony Father Langlois interrupted the parent and assured the Inquiry that "he had given the children a lecture but had told them they were only to tell the truth."
The parent then continued and said that some of the children told him that that one of the boys had been punished and this was the reason they had run away.
Nonetheless, the police were satisfied and the case was closed. It would be over 50 years before the police would ever turn their attention back to the goings on in St. Anne's Residential School.
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