Randal Apetagon’s hands shake as he holds a nearly 100-year-old portrait of a Roman Catholic priest. The man’s eyes are familiar. Apetagon’s mom had the same stare.
“It sends chills right down my spine,” he said. “Feels like seeing a ghost.”
Apetagon, now 42, had spent decades imagining what the priest might look like, and how the cleric’s actions both created and disrupted his life. Only recently did Apegaton learn that the Saint-Boniface Historical Society archives in Winnipeg held photos of the light-eyed priest.
As a kid, Apetagon’s own green eyes made him a black sheep among his family. He, his sister and their late mother all shared a lighter complexion than their Cree relatives in Norway House, Man. As if that wasn’t enough to set them apart, Apetagon said relatives went out of their way to make them feel like outsiders. The siblings couldn’t understand why.
“I was always called ‘the bastard child,’” said Apetagon. Looking back, the slurs he says were hurled at him and his sister hinted at the source of the family’s rage.
WATCH | Randal Apetagon talks about being teased as a child:
“[An aunt] called me and my brother ‘dirty little Frenchmen,’” said Apetagon’s older sister, Camille.
Randal said others called him “Pahkwayis,” meaning “French” and “Catholic” in the local Cree dialect, Ininimowin.
It wasn’t until the siblings were well into adulthood that they learned the origin of the insults and animosity.
“My mom finally told me everything when she was dying,” Camille said.
On her deathbed, their mother, Mary Apetagon, revealed that “Grandpa Willy,” the man they’d been taught was their grandfather, wasn’t. Their biological grandfather, she said, was a French-Canadian named Rev. Father Albert Chamberland, a former principal at a residential school where their grandmother had been a student.
They were descendents, Mary Apetegon said, of a Roman Catholic priest.
Therese Evans, Mary’s mother, was only a teenager when she got pregnant. Although her experience is central to this story, little is known about Evans’s early life.
She was born in Norway House in 1931, and her family today describes Evans’s childhood home as turbulent. They say Evans’s mother had to give her up to the Church, that she was “orphaned” and “raised by the nuns” at a residential school overseen by Rev. Chamberland.
More than 70 years later, the timeline and details surrounding the teen’s pregnancy remain unclear.
Records held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation show that Evans attended a Norway House agency residential school from 1943 to 1946 — from age 12 to 15. Randal Apetagon said it was during those years that Chamberland “started molesting her.”
Multiple community members told CBC that Evans became pregnant by Chamberland while she was attending residential school, yet the birth certificate for her daughter, Mary Apetagon, is dated Aug. 9, 1949 — a few years after Evans was last recorded at the school.
The baby’s father is listed as William Apetagon. A note added to Evans’s baptism record, held at the Saint-Boniface Historical Society archive, says she and William married in 1949. Randal and Camille say the Church forced the pair to wed.
Church officials lied to William’s parents, Camille said, claiming he had impregnated Evans, “when it was the priest who got my grandma pregnant.”
Mary’s cousin, Mona Clarke, remembers attending the wedding, a ceremony at the Anglican Church, with a reception at William’s parents’ home. Clarke was just a young child then, but remembers the boat ride to the party, rows of men and women line-dancing together and the feeling of sitting in her nanny’s rocking chair while cradling her baby cousin, Mary.
“She was so cute,” said Clarke, 76.
Clarke grew up with the understanding that Mary’s biological father was Rev. Chamberland, but she said it was hardly spoken about outside of private conversations.
CBC News reached out to the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas for an interview about these allegations. Archbishop Murray Chatlain declined an interview but replied to CBC by email, saying, in part, “I am profoundly saddened to read about these allegations – I had no awareness of this family’s concerns prior to your email. I take them extremely seriously.”
A CBC investigation uncovered that the priest at the centre of this paternity question had a long career with the Roman Catholic Church, and was known in Norway House as a predator to multiple girls and women.
Rev. Chamberland was the head of the Roman Catholic mission in Norway House at the time of Evans’s pregnancy. He served for more than 50 years with the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas as a mission director and residential school principal in communities across northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The Saint-Boniface Historical Society archive has more than five dozen photos of Chamberland, spanning his life from his 20s to his 80s. Opening a folder of old photos in the archive reading room recently, Randal was floored by a picture of Chamberland in his mid-20s.
“It hits you in the gut,” Randal said. “It’s like I’m looking in a mirror or something. ‘Cause I know that… expression, that face. I seen it. …I’ve seen these features my whole life.”
An obituary reveals Chamberland was born on April 10, 1901, in Saint-Philippe-de-Néri, a small parish municipality in Quebec. He became ordained as a priest in 1926, and spent most of a half century in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He retired to Quebec in 1980 and died four years later.
The obituary describes Chamberland, in French, as a generous soul who served in residential schools and had “a love for the poor.”
CBC reviewed multiple documents from that era, including correspondence between Chamberland and Indian Affairs, and the archdiocese’s newsletter, Le Courrier du Keewatin.
One community member said Chamberland was known for “approaching women” in ways that “shouldn’t be done by a priest.”
As principal of the Cross Lake residential school in 1941, Chamberland wrote, in English: “when one deals with the indian problem [sic], he has to keep in mimd [sic] that not only one aspect of their mentality, but to a certain extend [sic] all their nature have [sic] to be changed.”
In 1946, Chamberland wrote in French about the Cree community of Norway House with a seeming mix of exasperation and self-congratulation at his ability to “endure with patience” their “nonsense.”
In 1963, while serving as principal of the Guy Hill residential school — a roughly 400-kilometre drive west of Norway House — Chamberland appeared briefly on CBC Television in a news story about the “educational” goals of residential schools.
At one point, the reporter asks Chamberland, “Do you think there’s a danger of making a bum out of the Indian if we give him too much?”
“Well, definitely, definitely,” Chamberland replied. “I don’t think we should give to any capable, able-to-work Indian, a nickel free, for nothing,” he said.
Altogether, Chamberland spent at least 16 years in Norway House. More than a half-century later, remaining community members still harbour allegations against him — beyond that of impregnating Therese Evans.
Mona Clarke remembers her mother saying Chamberland “got fresh with” a young woman when they went swimming. The woman had intended to become a nun, but gave up, Clarke said, to steer clear of the priest.
John Henry Jr., assistant to the chief and council of Norway House Cree Nation, said he spoke to an elder in Norway House this summer who claimed his late wife had been sexually assaulted by Chamberland as a child.
Henry Muswagon, 80, said Chamberland was “involved” in Evans’s pregnancy and was known for “approaching women’’ in ways that “shouldn’t be done by a priest.” He said Chamberland was relocated out of the community shortly after another woman complained to a bishop. “I don’t know if she got pregnant,” Muswagon said.
When asked whether the Archdiocese knew of any allegations against the priest, Archbishop Chatlain, in his statement to CBC, said, “we are unaware of any files that allude to this situation.”
In the Catholic Church, clergy take a lifelong vow of celibacy. Yet worldwide, increasing numbers of people are speaking out as the children of priests and bishops.
Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist in Ireland, is convinced there are at least 15,000 children of clergy around the world. He calls that a conservative estimate, “the bottom rung of the ladder.”
Doyle was in his late 20s when he learned his own biological father was a Roman Catholic priest. Frustrated, he wondered how many other families held the same secret. So he started Coping International, a charity to support priests’ children. He says he has since heard from thousands of people with similar experiences.
The Apetagons’ story reflects a global pattern, said Doyle, “where the church try and shoo it [a pregnancy] away and arrange it in a marriage. ...We have cases of that exact type in Cameroon, in Kenya, in America, in Ireland.”
In Doyle’s view, the Catholic Church has long been complicit in “emotional child abuse” through imposed silence, denial and neglect of priests’ descendants. He believes the Apetagons, and others in their position, deserve access to free psychological counselling, so that they can tell their story without judgment and begin to work through their trauma.
In his book Our Fathers, Doyle describes reaching out to numerous Bishops Conferences, advocating for them to provide mental health support for descendents. A common response he’s received: bishops would be willing to meet with those who have concerns.
Doyle believes the Catholic Church needs to come up with a more robust response for families like the Apetagons.
This echoes the response the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas sent to CBC: “I will not hesitate to meet with the family to better understand their situation and explore ways that the diocese can assist them moving forward.”
Archbishop Chatlain’s email also notes that “while these allegations are historic in nature, it’s important for me to reassure congregants that the Archdiocese now has policies in place to protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults, as well as review and respond to allegations of clergy abuse or inappropriate behaviour.”
Doyle believes the Catholic Church needs to come up with a more robust response for families like the Apetagons.
“These secrets will continue to come out,” he said. “There’s no way you can stop it, control it, curb it.” With the low cost of home DNA kits and the accessibility of online genealogical services, a growing number of people are finding connections to clergy within their bloodline, Doyle said.
“Less than $100 — the secret’s out. And it’s grandkids, often, who are doing the unearthing of these issues.”
Excited to share what he’d found at the Saint-Boniface Historical Society archives, Randal Apetagon went straight to his sister’s place in Winnipeg. Camille was out, but his niece, Jillian Apetagon, invited him in, eager to see the photos.
“Look at that one!” Jillian exclaimed, seeing her grandmother Mary’s features in the black and white portrait of Chamberland that her uncle had pulled up on a laptop. “She had his nose, his mouth, his chin. That was — yeah, that was his daughter.”
Jillian, 25, wiped tears from her eyes. “It’s insane,” she said. “I never thought I’d see these, ever. I thought he’d just, like, be a mystery our whole lives.”
Jillian grew up hearing that a priest by the name of Chamberland was her great-grandfather, but none of her immediate family knew what he looked like.
WATCH | Randal Apetagon and his niece Jillian look at archival images of Chamberland:
“I didn’t even know where to begin looking,” Camille said later about finding information on Chamberland. She’d feared any related documentation might have burned in a residential school fire.
When she saw the photos that night, she didn’t doubt her mother’s story for an instant.
“Like WTF, like holy, he looks like my mum,” she said of seeing his picture for the first time. Chamberland had the same “piercing stare,” Camille said, “the nose, the eyes ...the bum-chin.”
Before she died, Mary told Camille that she’d met the priest briefly when she was a young child in the 1950s. Camille recalled her mother telling her that nuns took her hand and pointed her out to Chamberland, saying, “This is the one.”
According to Camille, Mary told her, “I remember looking up at this man. He was a husky man.”
Randal had a similar experience as a kid the first time he visited a school run by the Roman Catholic Church in Norway House. He found himself confused by how the nuns treated him.
They knew something about me that I didn’t know.
It was the mid-1980s, a year or two after Chamberland had died, and Randal was about six years old. He remembers the nuns swarming him when he arrived, touching his head, hugging him and cooing, “That’s Mary’s boy! That’s Mary‘s boy!”
“They knew something about me that I didn’t know,” he said.
Today he wonders what — or who else — the Church may have kept secret.
When he looks at Chamberland’s obituary and the long list of communities the priest worked in over his 54-year career, Randal can’t help but wonder how many more people he fathered.
“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “There’s our mom, and then there’s the possibility of others.”
Randal and his family continue to have questions the archives alone can’t answer, but they’re hopeful it’s only a matter of time before others with similar experiences come forward.
“For many years, Indigenous people were shut down,” Randal said. “But now the secrets are being revealed, right?”
With files from Cameron MacIntosh
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these 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.