WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
They would talk about it in whispers. In the middle of the night.
About Brother Joseph’s apple orchard.
Harvey McLeod attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1966 to 1968. Now chief of the Upper Nicola Band in the southern Interior of B.C., the 67-year-old remembers the hushed conversations he heard in the boys’ dorm about the orchard beside the school.
“We’re going to go steal apples, and then one night, one of the guys says no, we shouldn’t. That’s where they’re burying people.”
WATCH | Chief Harvey McLeod recalls students used to talk about the apple orchard:
Renowned drum maker Norman Retasket, 77, also remembers something wasn’t right down there. He attended the residential school from 1952 to 1962 and he, too, heard older boys talking about it.
“I overheard him telling that if you’re going down in the orchard tonight, you better be careful because there’s a hole down there.”
Diena Jules, who attended the residential school as a day scholar from 1962 to 1967, says she heard horrific stories about the orchard.
“I’ve always known since I was a little kid that there were children that were buried,” she told CBC’s The Fifth Estate.
On May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the preliminary findings of a ground penetrating radar survey that identified 215 suspected graves of children in the apple orchard. The news shook the country and made headlines around the world.
For survivors who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the discovery in the orchard has brought about a reckoning and stirred troubling secrets and memories of abuse they saw and endured decades ago.
For Retasket, the discovery only confirmed what he says he suspected for years. He remembers when he was eight years old, a friend went missing. He describes him as a happy-go-lucky boy with special needs who slept two beds away from him. They shared a cubby hole box.
“All of a sudden one day his toothpaste, toothbrush and comb were gone, but I didn’t want to ask anybody what happened to him.”
Retasket says he thinks his friend was being sexually abused, as he was, and can only speculate about what happened to his friend.
“He might be one of them down there,” he says. “He’s vulnerable. And then in order to cover everything, they would just put him in the hole down in the orchard.”
Retasket says after the discovery of the suspected burials, he started to question what happened at the school.
“Why wasn’t the RCMP there to investigate? How come there wasn’t a coroner? Of course when you’re that young, you don’t know about the RCMP. You don’t know about coroners. But as you go on, it sort of makes you curious.”
When Jennifer Yvonne Camille, who attended the residential school from 1962 to 1972, heard the news about the suspected graves, she says she couldn’t breathe. She wanted to phone her son and daughter, but couldn’t. She felt paralyzed.
“All I could say is now they know,” says Camille, now 64. “Now they know.”
As a student at the former residential school, she says she was warned not to go near the orchard.
“We weren’t allowed to go over to the apple orchard when we were outside playing on the merry-go-rounds and the swings. We’d see apples and if we went and stole an apple, we’d get punished for it, right? We weren’t allowed to go near the apple orchard.”
Chief Michael LeBourdais of Whispering Pines Clinton Indian Band, 35 kilometres north of Kamloops, remembers hearing stories from his uncle who attended the residential school in the 1950s about holes being dug in the orchard.
Boys were made to fight each other, his uncle told him. The winner or loser would be taken outside to dig holes in the orchard.
WATCH | His uncle said he dug holes in the orchard beside the school:
He says his uncle told him it wasn’t long before the boys caught on they weren’t just digging holes, they were digging graves for their classmates.
“Dig a hole, somebody’s missing, dig a hole, somebody’s missing,” he says.
Asked about the effect on his uncle, he replies, “I don’t know. He breaks down.”
In 2017, at a gathering at the Tk’emlups Arbour, McLeod says he was approached by a survivor who wanted to share her story. He says he was asked by the woman if he could see the riverbank from his dorm window.
“I told her no, and she cried and said, ‘I’m glad you couldn’t, because I was one of them that buried them.’”
McLeod shakes his head when asked if the woman shared any other details. “The woman was in so much distress all we could do was just hold her and hug her.”
The imposing red brick building that was once the Kamloops Indian Residential School still stands overlooking the South Thompson River.
Enrolment peaked at 500 in the 1950s, making it the largest residential school in all of Canada.
Thousands of Indigenous children who had been ripped from their own homes in B.C.‘s Interior and from as far away as Alberta and the Yukon were forced to attend the school for almost eight decades.
Opened in 1890, the school was run by the Roman Catholic church until 1969, when the federal government took over its administration. After that, it was operated as a residence for students attending day school until it was closed in 1978.
Set up by the Canadian government, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the objective of such schools was to “strip away Aboriginal children’s identities and assimilate them into western Christian society.”
According to the TRC, “the federal government has estimated that at least 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students passed through the system.”
Retasket remembers what life was like before he was taken from his family in Cache Creek, 100 kilometres west of Kamloops, and forced to go to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Cradling a black-and-white framed photo, he points out the grinning faces of him, his sister and brothers. He says his family was so poor his mother made their clothes out of flour sacks, but they were happy.
“If you see, we’re all smiling. And if you look in the eyes, there — we’re happy, right?”
Camille remembers the day they came to Deadmans Creek, in 1962, to take her to residential school. She was playing in the field near her home with her brother when a white car showed up outside her house.
“They took Marvin away, they took me away, but we held each other so tight. We were screaming [because] I didn’t want to leave him and he didn’t want to leave me. We held each other and held each other. They had to pry us apart. And they finally pried us apart and they took me to the residential school and I don’t know where they took my brother.”
She later found out he was sent to Tranquille Sanatorium, an institution in Kamloops that treated people with mental illness. She never saw him again.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School, like so many others, was a place of horror for the children forced to live here.
Camille remembers when the sexual abuse started. She was just six years old.
“We were … playing and this tall guy called me out to the hall … he guided me downstairs. Just told me to come with him and I did, but I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says.
“I went down into the furnace room with him where the laundry gets done and there’s a big furnace downstairs, and there’s a flat bed down there where they fold laundry I guess. That’s where he laid me. After he was done, he told me I was never allowed to say anything. That I would be punished.”
She says sexual abuse happened a lot.
“Brothers, priests, and I don’t know who the other guys were, but it always happened downstairs.”
She says she believes that some of the girls who were abused are buried in the apple orchard.
“You’re not allowed to scream. Maybe they screamed and they ended up in the grave. They wouldn’t stop screaming.”
Sexual abuse was common at the residential schools. So was death.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the names of 3,200 children who died at residential schools between 1867 and 2000. Former TRC chair Murray Sinclair has told the CBC the deaths could be as high as 25,000.
Many died of diseases like tuberculosis and influenza. According to the TRC, they died at rates that were “far higher than those experienced by the general school aged population.”
Many deaths were not documented.
Audrey Baptiste, 69, attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1957 to 1964.
She remembers when she was 10 years old, after church every Sunday she would walk with her friends from the school past a barn and down to the river. One Sunday, when she looked inside the barn, she saw the lifeless bodies of four boys hanging.
“They were hanging down, they weren’t at the roof, their feet weren’t on the floor. They were just hanging.”
When she passed by the barn again, the boys were no longer there. She says she asked the Sister Superior and a Brother about the boys but was told it was just a prank, a joke. She recognized one of the boys from her class but he wasn’t there the next day.
“And because I kept asking, I got called in to take my punishment to learn to shut up.”
She says she was struck with a thick leather strap on the arms and hands by a nun.
On the May long weekend last year, Sarah Beaulieu, an expert in ground penetrating radar, was asked by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc to look for potential burial sites in the orchard.
Beaulieu looks for soil disturbances when she is searching for unmarked graves.
“We can’t see bones, we can’t see bodies, we’re looking for a grave shaft for the most part, and a grave shaft is a soil disturbance,” she says.
“When you dig a grave and then you put the soil back on top of it, that changes from where the burial is, so I’m looking for that soil disturbance for the most part, and when you have a potential coffin or casket or box or shrouded burial, these can show up differently, whether it be wood or metal reflects differently on the screen.”
After surveying a 0.8-hectare site in the apple orchard, Beaulieu says the results showed more than 200 targets of interest.
“Many of them had multiple signatures of burials,” she says. “There’s context from the fact that they’re within an east-west configuration, which is common with Christian burials.”
WATCH | What happens after anomalies are found:
She says the next step in the process would be excavation.
“I came away from this knowing that we certainly had very interesting anomalies in that area that we cannot confirm are burials until there’s an excavation.”
There are plans to survey all 64 hectares surrounding the school.
Beaulieu says oral stories from Kamloops Indian Residential School survivors helped her decide where to search.
“Ground penetrating radar is the scientific approach, but we really need to hold Indigenous knowledge systems, oral tellings, to an equal space and I think given that it has to be honored and respected.”
Museum administrator Diena Jules was at the orchard in the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park as the survey was being done. She says she feels as if she is a caretaker of the children buried there and talked to them while the survey was happening.
“I told them when I was there. I said, ‘Don’t be afraid. They are just here looking for you. They are going to be confirming what our oral history has told us, what I’ve always known. And, you know, it’s going to be OK.’ “
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief and council didn’t want the suspected burials filmed. Former Tk’emlups councillor Jeanette Jules says the site is sacred.
“We wanted to give respect to the little ones,” she says. The Fifth Estate was allowed to film in the orchard and show the suspected graves after getting permission from an advisory council made up of representatives of Tk’emlúps families.
The Language and Culture Department of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation was responsible for the search, but manager Ted Gottfriedson thought it would be too emotionally difficult for him to attend. Diena Jules called him with the results.
“Diena called me on Sunday and said, you know, there’s 215 graves down here. It almost knocked me off my feet. I was devastated,‘’ he says. “I just couldn’t believe it. I kept repeating it, I said: ‘Did you say 215? Yup, Two-one-five.’ ”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir says one of the hardest things she had to do was break the news to the community.
“I had no idea what the reaction was going to be. All I knew is I’m delivering this horrific message, this horrific, gory, information of 215 preliminary findings of unmarked graves.”
On Oct. 18, at a news conference in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau beside her, Casimir said the community has carried a heavy burden.
“These missing children buried just a short distance from here exemplify [the] Indian residential school system that perpetuated mass human rights violations that might reflect criminal behaviour, including and suggesting violations of humanitarian law and genocide.”
She says the most important thing moving forward is that the area be treated as a crime scene.
The First Nation has invited Francisco Cali Tzay, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to Tk’emlups to discuss making a complaint to the World Court in the Hague.
There are certain protocols for exhuming unmarked graves and the First Nation also wants experts involved in that.
“We know that we need answers. The families need answers. Communities need answers. The world needs answers,” Casimir told The Fifth Estate.
For those who survived the school, the announcement of the findings was as if a dam had finally broken. More stories started coming out, even more horrific. Many were about what happened downstairs in the furnace room
Camille recalls seeing things that as a child she didn’t understand.
“I remember being down there one time and I was laying there, and I turned my head as I always did. There was a coat hanger and blood on the towels or sheets. You could smell the blood. I didn’t know what it was then.”
Looking back today, she thinks she knows what was going on.
“It was probably girls having miscarriages or getting abortions. That’s what I feel it is now.”
After the discovery of the suspected unmarked graves, McLeod says he was approached by a man and asked if he was ever in the furnace room in the basement of the school.
“I told him I was in there once. I never wanted to go back there again, and I never did go back there again. He was saying yeah, and he started crying, too. He said that it was a horrible place.”
McLeod says the man revealed to him that he put a baby in the furnace.
“He said he was given a box to put in there. He didn’t know what it was and then he was going to put it in there, and a baby fell out.”
Former TRC chair Murray Sinclair issued a statement on June 1, 2021, on his facebook, after the discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. He says that survivors shared stories about the furnace to the TRC.
“Some of the survivors talked about infants who were born to young girls at the residential schools who had been fathered by priests, having those infants taken away from them and deliberately killed, sometimes by being thrown into furnaces, they told us.”
Baptiste knows it is hard for people to comprehend the stories about the furnace room, but she says she was at the school for 10 years and says she believes the stories.
“People disappearing and students going missing, it’s not that hard to believe. When you hear enough about it… And there is no other explanation of where these babies went, or these students went… They sure as heck didn’t up and walk out.”
Former Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief Manny Jules says the discovery of the suspected graves allowed Canadians to understand what the residential school survivors had gone through.
“The reality of the grisly discovery led the majority of Canadians for the first time to see with open eyes, to hear for the first time, the words of the residential school survivors, that indeed what happened wasn’t our fault.”
Every Friday afternoon now, Diena Jules, Gottfriedson and staff from the museum walk the perimeter of the apple orchard. They drum and sing lullabies and traditional songs to the former students they believe are buried here.
Standing in front of the museum, Gottfriedson looks out over the orchard. He is quiet.
“You think of the lost potential and the fear they must have felt. That’s something that’s a different type of sorrow, you know, that missed opportunity … that potential is a big one for me, what could have been for those kids.”
With files from Leena Minifie and Shirley McLean
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.