RCMP reveals decade-old probe into sex abuse allegations at Manitoba residential school

Manitoba RCMP say they have been investigating allegations of sexual abuse at a former residential school in Sagkeeng First Nation for more than a decade. 

Findings of investigation into Fort Alexander Residential School in Sagkeeng First Nation sent to prosecutors

Older black-and-white photo of a building in a field with a few trees and a car out front.
The Fort Alexander Residential School was open from 1904 to 1970. Manitoba RCMP said Tuesday a criminal investigation into allegations of abuse at the school was launched in 2011. (George Harris Fonds/Archives of Manitoba)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Manitoba RCMP say they have been investigating allegations of sexual abuse at a former residential school in Sagkeeng First Nation for more than a decade. 

The Fort Alexander Residential School opened in 1904 on what is now known as Sagkeeng First Nation — which is about 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It closed in 1970 but continued to operate as a day school for a number of years. 

In a Tuesday morning news release, Manitoba RCMP said their major crimes unit began looking into allegations of sexual abuse at the school in February 2010 and launched a formal criminal investigation a year later. 

RCMP say they obtained 75 statements from witnesses and victims over the course of the investigation.

Before that, they also combed through archival material in Manitoba and Ottawa, going through thousands of documents such as student and employee lists and quarterly returns, the news release says.

In addition, the investigation involved going door-to-door in the area of Sagkeeng First Nation and nearby Powerview.

WATCH | Manitoba RCMP investigate allegations of sexual abuse at former Manitoba residential school:

Manitoba RCMP investigating decades-old sexual abuse allegations at residential school

2 years ago
Duration 1:55
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing. The Manitoba RCMP revealed it has been investigating decades-old allegations of sexual abuse at the Fort Alexander Residential School. Officers say they have obtained 75 statements from witnesses and victims since the criminal investigation was launched in 2011.

After an extensive investigation that involved more than 80 RCMP officers speaking with more than 700 people, the police force forwarded its findings to the Manitoba Prosecution Service to review and determine whether charges are warranted. 

No charges have been laid at this time. 

The Manitoba RCMP said they are not currently investigating any other residential schools. 

The RCMP typically does not discuss ongoing investigations, but says it decided to make this one public after an inquiry from the Winnipeg Free Press, which first reported on the RCMP investigation.

"Due to the many people affected by this investigation as well as the larger social implications, it was determined to be in the public interest to provide as much information on the ongoing investigation as we can," RCMP said in the news release.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice said officials are unable to provide further comment at this time because it is an ongoing investigation. 

However, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said he recognized the enormous impact the investigation becoming public will have on Sagkeeng and survivors in the community. 

"Today I think all of our thoughts and prayers are with a community that is deeply hurting."

Other investigations 

RCMP in other provinces confirmed they have taken on similar investigations. 

Saskatchewan RCMP said Tuesday they are looking into a historic complaint related to the Timber Bay residential school.

Investigators will be meeting with people in several communities, said Supt. Vince Foy, who is in charge of the Saskatchewan RCMP Major Crime Unit.

"This is a historical complaint — dating back decades. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for someone to come forward and speak with police after so much time has passed," he said in an email. 

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), said he thinks further criminal investigations into what happened at residential schools in Saskatchewan, and across the country, are warranted.

"Those responsible for those horrific crimes against our young First Nations children must be held accountable to the fullest extent," he said. 

The British Columbia RCMP also undertook its own investigation into abuse at residential schools decades ago, forming a task force in December 1994 to investigate complaints of historic physical and sexual abuse at church-run residential schools around B.C. The task force operated until 2003, an RCMP spokesperson said. 

Fifteen schools were part of the investigation which resulted in 14 people being charged with various offences. 

Stories of abuse 

Elders and survivors in Sagkeeng First Nation have long spoken of abuse at the school and of missing children. Some of those stories were included in hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Chief Derrick Henderson said last week. 

It was the announcement that potential burial sites had been found on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in May that prompted Sagkeeng to raise money to hire a professional drone services company to conduct the search of the school grounds for potential unmarked graves. 

WATCH | Phil Fontaine on abuse at Manitoba residential school:

Phil Fontaine's 1990 account of physical and sexual abuse at residential school

33 years ago
Duration 7:30
Fontaine's tell-all interview from 1990 of abuse at a church-run residential school. Aired on CBC's The Journal on Oct. 30, 1990. Warning: This video contains distressing details. About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government-funded residential schools from the 19th century to 1996, when the last one closed. They lived in substandard conditions and endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The system was "cultural genocide," said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419 to support former students and others affected by a residential school experience.

More than 30 years ago, Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and residential school survivor, spoke about the physical, psychological and sexual abuse he and other students experienced at the Fort Alexander Residential School. 

In 1990, he told CBC about the prevalence of abuse in the schools after meeting with church officials in Winnipeg. At the time, he was calling for a formal inquiry. 

"I was asked [by church officials] how prevalent this was and to illustrate my point, I had suggested that if we took an example, my Grade 3 class, if there were 20 boys in this particular class, every single one of the 20 would have experienced what I experienced," he said at the time.

Jacqueline Romanow, who teaches Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, says she has friends who were abused at the school. 

She says the news today will open old wounds, but that it's crucial that survivors see some form of justice for what happened to them. 

"It is difficult to relive traumatic experiences but it's even harder to go through your whole life thinking that these terrible things could happen to you as a child and that no one really cared enough to do anything about it," she said. 

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) is not commenting on the investigation at this time, to avoid impacting its outcome, said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas.

He said AMC is supporting Sagkeeng Chief Henderson and his council members as they work with the RCMP. 

In the RCMP news release, Sagkeeng First Nation said they were asking for the privacy of victims to be respected at this time. 

Grand Chief Gerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents First Nations in southern Manitoba, including Sagkeeng, says he hopes the investigation will result in justice for survivors. 

"We've waited more than long enough for these criminals to be held fully accountable."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools:

With files from Michelle Song, Bonnie Allen and Austin Grabbish