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The boy from Halalt

Richard Thomas’s death at the Kuper Island residential school in B.C. in 1966 was labelled a suicide. But his family and classmates say that’s only half the story

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Richard Thomas, of the Halalt First Nation, was in his final year at the Kuper Island residential school in B.C. when he wrote three questions in his notebook:

“What kind of career am I going to have? What grade am I going to reach? When am I going to die?”

Within five months, all of those questions were answered. On June 2, 1966, Richard, 16, was found dead, hanging in the school’s gymnasium, just days before his Grade 8 graduation.

CBC Podcasts obtained a death certificate and coroner’s inquiry report about what police and school officials say happened that day. The 18-page report contains detailed information leading up to Richard’s death, the findings of an RCMP investigation and results from his autopsy.

In the report, a coroner who was not at the scene wrote, “Richard Murphy Allan Thomas committed suicide by hanging while in a state of despondency. Death occurred in the Gymnasium of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School, probably around 7.00 P.M. and certainly before 11.00 P.M. June 2, 1966.”

The official explanation of Richard’s death doesn’t ring true for his family and many in the community.

Though Richard’s death was ruled a suicide, the constable investigating the case, Harold Patrick “H.P.” Costello, was unable to find any motive for why. His best guess was that Richard’s home life “left much to be desired.” The officer said he had learned that up to 18 people lived in one house and that Richard’s parents had separated two weeks before the incident.

Richard’s sister Belvie Brebber disputes those claims, saying their parents never separated. She acknowledges her family lived in a small house with many people — like many residing on reserve — but insists it was a happy home.

In investigating what happened the day Richard died, CBC Podcasts found inconsistencies in the story told to police by the Catholic priests and brothers of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the Kuper Island residential school. The official explanation for Richard’s death doesn’t ring true for his family and many in the community — and Brebber questions whether it was a suicide at all.

New evidence from Kuper Island survivors who were at school with Richard reveal the torment he may have faced leading up to his death — and the details of his time there offer a window into why some children who went to residential school never returned.

WATCH: CBC explores the dark history of the Kuper Island residential school:

II. A Canadian 'Alcatraz'

The Thomas family was a large one — Dorothy and Stanley Thomas had 17 children. Richard was the eighth-oldest, while Brebber was two years his senior.

Life inside the Thomas home was a comforting routine of home-cooked meals, wood-carving and open displays of love — Brebber remembers her father giving the kids “whisker burns” from snuggling against his bearded face.

Brebber says Richard was exceptionally close to his mother, recalling a time when her mother was trying to find Richard in a crowd. Dorothy Thomas spotted him right away, and said something that in hindsight seems eerily foretelling.

“‘There he is. Can’t you see the halo around his head?’” Brebber remembers her mother saying. “It was almost like he was an angel already.”

The family was eventually disrupted when, one by one, the Thomas children ended up at one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools: Kuper Island.

The school operated for nearly a century, from 1889 to 1975. It sat atop an island about 10 kilometres off the coast, separated from everything Brebber and Richard knew by the open waters of the Salish Sea.

Survivors came to refer to the Kuper Island school as 'Alcatraz,' a nod to the notorious maximum-security prison in California. (Library and Archives Canada)

“Mom told us not to run away [from the school],” Brebber recalled. Because it was located on an island, “you can’t get out of there. You just can’t.”

Indeed, survivors came to refer to the Kuper Island school as “Alcatraz,” a nod to the notorious maximum-security prison in California. Kuper Island got its name from a British naval officer who had surveyed the waters in the mid-1800s.

Survivor accounts of the prevalence of abuse at the school are legion. Police reports from the 1930s, as well as an RCMP task force from the 1990s, confirm Kuper Island to have been rampant with abuse. For several generations of Hul’qumi’num children, it was a place of loneliness, hunger, public humiliation, emotional and often severe physical and sexual abuse. Researchers have determined that at least 167 children died there, some buried in unmarked graves.

WATCH: More than 160 unmarked graves found near Kuper Island residential school, First Nation says:

Survivors of Kuper Island describe the long wooden wharf that led to a Gothic brick institution with a white cross on top. The cathedral-like building was surrounded by manicured lawns and orchards, a place where Catholic nuns, priests and brothers wielded their authority behind a chain-link fence, away from the public eye.

Richard attended the school for several years. James Charlie, a fellow student who was younger than Richard, said the older boy stood out.

“He had a very nice personality, because when you’re a senior boy, it was common… for them to pick on younger ones,” said Charlie, now 70. “Richard didn’t have that in him.”

LISTEN: Exploring who Richard Thomas was:

In fact, survivors say Richard was on the receiving end of bullying. As evidence of this, Brebber points to a small black and white photo stamped July 1964. In it, Richard is smiling, holding a small wooden mandolin. He’s standing on the wharf, the Kuper Island school looming in the background. He’s also wearing a nun’s outfit, black habit and all. Brebber believes he was forced to wear it.

This photo of Richard Thomas on the grounds of the Kuper Island residential school is one of only two that his family has of him.
This photo of Richard Thomas on the grounds of the Kuper Island residential school is one of only two that his family has of him. (Submitted by Belvie Brebber)

“I think they were really trying to embarrass him, [to] put him down and stuff like that,” said Brebber about the Oblate brothers. Touching a nun’s outfit was highly forbidden, she said.

Richard is grinning in the photo, which Brebber believes was an act of resistance. He was protecting himself with his smile, trying to turn the tables. “He’s making a joke about the whole thing.”

The photo is one of only two that the family still has of Richard.

III. 'Nobody said nothing'

Brebber, now 75, graduated from Kuper Island in 1962, four years before Richard. She started noticing changes in him during visits and when he would call home.

“He got quiet, really quiet,” said Brebber. “Mom would ask us … if we knew what was wrong with him.”

Brebber had her own suspicions. She had first-hand knowledge of the horrors at Kuper Island. She claims that when she was 11, she was repeatedly raped by male staff in the laundry room and in the infirmary. Brebber recalls once being told to bring towels down into the unlit laundry room. A tall, black figure came out from behind the dryer and grabbed her.

“I hit my head and I passed out and when I came to, my pajamas were next to the door, but I was laying on top of the towels that I threw down, naked,” said Brebber.

According to Brebber, any new student above the age of 10 was instructed to bring towels to the laundry room. “This brother was raping them all.”

James Charlie and his older brother Tony say the boys’ side of the school was also rife with sexual abuse committed by staff.

“You could hear the bed squeaking all over the dormitory,” said Charlie. “The next morning, the poor guy could hardly walk. But nobody said nothing, because it could be their turn tonight.”

When I get out of here, I’m going to tell everything.

Brebber remembers her last phone conversation with her brother clearly. She was at home one day in June 1966 when the phone rang. It was Richard, who wanted to make sure Brebber was planning to come to his Grade 8 graduation ceremony, his long-awaited escape from Kuper Island.

“He asked Mom … if she had all his things ready, because he was graduating — his suit, his shoes, his tie and everything,” said Brebber. He then asked to talk to his sister, and that’s when his tone changed.

“All of a sudden, he says, ‘I can’t wait to get out of this hellhole,’” she said. “‘When I get out of here, I’m going to tell everything.’”

Brebber immediately shushed her brother, as she knew school staff often listened in on children’s phone calls. Abruptly, Richard said he needed to go. Then the phone line went dead.

“That was the last time we heard from him,” said Brebber.

Belvie Brebber, Richard's older sister, graduated from Kuper Island residential school in 1962. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

When Richard didn’t call back, Brebber’s worry intensified. Two nights later, the phone started ringing off the hook. But it wasn’t Richard calling. It was a priest from the school.

“They started phoning just about every hour, asking to speak to Mom and Dad,” said Brebber.

When their mother returned home that night, Brebber handed her the phone.

She asked what [was] going on, and then the phone dropped. She started to cry,” said Brebber. “So I picked up the phone … and they said, ‘Your brother’s gone, he died. He committed suicide.’”

More than half a century later, Brebber can still hear the sound of her mother’s cries.

“We couldn’t do anything for her … all we could hear her say [was], ‘My baby,’” said Brebber.

It hurts to even think about my mom crying like that. It hurts to … think that my brother died, [and] being told that he committed suicide. That just was not like him.”

The news of Richard’s death hit the Thomases hard, causing irreparable damage to the family, Brebber says. The despair was so extreme that she describes being on a “suicide mission” with her siblings in the years following, in an effort to forget what happened.

“We were all trying to kill ourselves, whether it was through alcohol or whatever,” said Brebber. A majority of Brebber’s siblings died from substance abuse or suicide. “There’s only two of the 17 who are left.”

IV. Discrepancies in official account

During the police investigation into Richard’s death in 1966, two Oblates were interviewed. On June 2, Brother Leonard Kenny stated that he saw Richard going into the school dining room for breakfast and everything seemed normal. It was Kenny’s day off and he did not see Richard again.

Brother Brian Dufour, a young Oblate from the suburbs of Montreal who had led the school’s drum and fife band, stated that he also had not seen Richard since breakfast hours. He believed Richard was with Brother Kenny at a dentist appointment in the morning and on an excursion with other students in Victoria in the afternoon.

The two Oblates who were interviewed say they realized Richard was not with the group when they returned at approximately 10:45 p.m. and the brothers began to look for him. The Oblates stated that they found Richard shortly after they began looking, hanging in the gym.

The school called the Chemainus Police department. Two constables and one doctor arrived at Kuper Island school at approximately 11:45 p.m. According to the police report, they were led inside the gymnasium where Richard’s body was located. Two photographs of the scene show Richard’s upper body suspended off the ground and his legs touching the gymnasium floor.

The doctor described Richard’s body as “quite cold and had been dead for some time.” There were no signs of violence and Richard was still wearing his clothing and eyeglasses. The officer noted a copy of the Bible was nearby, open to the New Testament passage of Acts 15. Father Thomas Lobsinger, the school principal, stated Richard had been preparing to take a test on the Acts.

A view of the grounds of Kuper Island school today. (Martha Troian/CBC)

After collecting three samples of Richard’s creative writing and one journal entry from his school book, the police concluded that he had been preoccupied with death.

Yet the three Oblates who were interviewed said Richard “had a normal mental attitude,” was never moody and “never showed any signs of being depressed.”

Constable H.P. Costello concluded Richard must have spent the day alone in the gym, and the last people to see him alive were three younger students who played with him in the gym in the evening. Those three children were interviewed by police and their statements were included in the report.

CBC Podcasts believes two of them have since passed away, but Donnie Sampson, who was 10 years old at the time, agreed to speak about what he remembers.

His story does not match key details of what the police report laid out.

LISTEN: Donnie talks about discovering Richard’s body:

Sampson says Richard was his mentor, and on that day, they and other students were in the gym playing “shadow tag,” a game where Richard would flick the lights on and off and the children would run around. At one point, the lights stayed off for an unusually long time.

In the darkness, Sampson remembers hearing the sound of a rope creaking. When the lights came back on, Richard was hanging. Sampson was closest to him, and tried to get him down.

In his interview with CBC Podcasts, Sampson still seemed deeply traumatized by what he witnessed that day. His wife, Janice, says he still needs to talk through the incident from time to time.

This account differs from the police report. In that version, the 10-year-old Sampson said he watched Richard playing with a rope, making knots and a loop. In the report, Sampson said he and the other boys eventually left to go to bed. There’s no mention of him witnessing Richard hanging.

Some of the girls went to bed crying, because in our Indian way, you’re not supposed to see this at a young age.

The constable who took Sampson’s statement wrote that the boy had to be led most of the way through it. Sampson remembers it as “a big interrogation.”

CBC Podcasts read the nearly 56-year-old statement back to Sampson. He cannot recall Richard playing with a rope or reading a Bible. Janice Sampson said all the times she’s heard Sampson tell the story, it’s never included a rope or a Bible. But she says one thing is etched in her husband’s memory very clearly.

“He just talks about Richard turning off the lights,” she said. “And when the lights finally go on … he sees Richard hanging, swinging there.”

Indeed, the biggest discrepancy of all is over when Richard Thomas died and who found him. According to the story the police collected from the Oblates, Richard’s body was discovered well after bedtime by Brother Dufour and Brother Kenny. The police report makes no mention of students finding his body or witnessing him hanging.

Yet Janice Sampson was also at the school at the time, and she remembers running with a friend toward the commotion in the gym — and seeing Richard swinging back and forth, his body limp. She also remembers the children sobbing.

“Some of the girls went to bed crying, because in our Indian way, you’re not supposed to see this at a young age,” she said. “The elders deal with it.”

Phillip Joe says he also saw Richard hanging. Now in his late 70s, Joe is a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair and tattoos of bear claws on each forearm. He says the Oblates actually forced him and other students to go look at Richard’s body.

Phillip Joe, who attended Kuper Island school with Richard, says the Oblates actually forced him and other students to go look at Richard's body on the day of his death. (Martha Troian/CBC)

“We were all around him and they told us not to move, and we’re all looking up,” said Joe. “They said, ‘If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

If they looked away, the students were physically hit by school staff, according to Joe.

V. Oblate who tormented Richard was sexual abuser, say survivors

Survivors take issue with the idea in the police report — and communicated to the children by the Oblates — that Richard died by suicide because he was distressed about his parents separating.

“They said that he hung himself because his parents were fighting at home and he wished that he could have a Christian family,” said James Charlie. “They said he underlined many passages in the Bible [and] this is how his parents should be. This is totally wrong. A total lie.”

Janice Sampson has a different explanation for the circumstances of Richard’s death. She believes he was a victim of bullying and abuse — perhaps even sexual abuse — by Brother Brian Dufour.

Janice recalls a day at Kuper Island when she was sent to see Dufour to receive punishment. While standing outside the office door, she could hear the sound of a strap. “Brother Dufour was saying to him, ‘Cry, you savage,’” Janice recalled. “After a while, [Dufour] comes out and he says [to Richard]: You’re going to see me later on tonight. I’m not finished with you.’”

That day, Janice asked Richard if he was OK. He responded by saying he was tired of it. “He got real quiet,” she said. “‘We shouldn’t be talking here,’ he says.”

CBC Podcasts interviewed three former Kuper Island students who allege Dufour sexually assaulted them. Janice’s husband, Donnie, says he was touched inappropriately by Dufour.

James and Tony Charlie also allege Dufour sexually abused them, while on a class trip to Montreal. Dufour fundraised for the Kuper Island drum and fife band to perform at Expo 67 in Montreal. James and Tony Charlie were part of that group.

Brothers James, left, and Raymond Charlie attended Kuper Island school with Richard Thomas. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

When the rest of the children left Montreal to travel back to B.C., Dufour kept James and Tony behind for an extra month. They stayed in the basement of the Dufour family home in the suburbs of Montreal, where James said Dufour sexually abused them at night while Dufour’s parents were asleep upstairs.

“So [as] far as they [knew], he was a good brother working for the Oblates,” said James. “They didn’t have a clue their son was abusing us.”

At the end of the summer, Dufour left Kuper Island. What he did next is unclear. The Oblates provided CBC with a letter from Dufour, date unknown but on Kuper stationary, stating his intention to resign from the life of a brother for good, whereas a news report suggests he went to work at a different residential school in Alberta. By the 1970s, he had settled in Cornwall, Ont.

But in April 2000, Dufour was charged with two counts of indecent assault and two counts of gross indecency as part of a major police investigation into allegations of rampant sexual abuse in the Cornwall area. At the time of the alleged offences, Dufour was working as a child-care worker at the Cornwall Youth Residence.

Dufour died the day after he was charged, from what local police described as a heart attack. CBC Podcasts reached out to Dufour’s family asking for comment. They declined.

The current head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Father Ken Thorson, told CBC that he was saddened by the first-hand accounts of survivors relating to Richard Thomas. “These stories, and the truth of what happened at residential schools like Kuper Island, is a tragic legacy that, as a religious order, we are working every day to reconcile,” wrote Thorson.

VI. Laying Richard to rest

CBC Podcasts also took Richard Thomas’s autopsy report to Dr. Kona Williams, a coroner in Sudbury, Ont., and the first Indigenous forensic pathologist in Canada. She is frequently asked for guidance these days about the unmarked graves around residential schools. Williams’s own father survived the Birtle Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Referring to the Thomas family, Williams said, “I can’t imagine them losing their child in a place like that.”

When reviewing the report, the first thing that jumped out at her was the death certificate, which refers to Richard’s cause of death as “strangulation.”

“I would have labelled the cause of death as hanging and not strangulation,” said Williams. “There’s too much at risk in calling something like that ‘strangulation,’ because it implies in … today’s language that this might have been done by somebody else.”

Williams acknowledged, however, that coroners in B.C. in the 1960s may have put hanging and strangulation in the same category of death.

Based on the scant details described in the medical examination of Richard’s body, she feels Richard died by hanging. But not much is clear beyond that.

“With the limited information that I have, I wouldn’t be able to say yes, he’d been murdered or no, he hadn’t,” said Williams. “Typically … with these types of cases, I have a lot more evidence and information.”

Richard’s sister Belvie Brebber still maintains his death wasn’t a suicide.

While Williams describes the investigation as “adequate,” she questions how thorough it was. “If the very basics of communication to families about the death of their child wasn’t done, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the investigation was either improperly done or not done at all.”

Richard’s sister Belvie Brebber still maintains his death wasn’t a suicide.

The story simply doesn’t match the Richard she knew: a kind and intelligent boy who was a keen writer and who looked forward to continuing his education. Brebber believes someone was responsible for her brother’s death.

“He said he was going to tell everything when he got out of there,” said Brebber. “I know that’s what got him killed.”

Richard is buried at the Halalt cemetery, among the graves of Brebber’s siblings and her son Alexander, who drowned. She has done a lot of grieving.

After CBC Podcasts shared details of the autopsy report with her, Brebber said, “I just want Richard now to lay in rest. I’m the only one that really fought to find out about him, [but] I gotta let it go.”

Richard is buried at the Halalt cemetery. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Brebber recently rediscovered a second photo of Richard. In the sepia-toned image, he is standing next to a fence near a field with one hand on his waist. He’s wearing blue jeans, a light-coloured polo shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black-rimmed glasses.

The photo captures a distinctive Richard pose, she said — this is how he looked standing outside Kuper Island residential school, waving from a distance.

Brebber wants Richard to be remembered not for the horrible nature of his death, but the richness of his brief life.

“He was a wonderful brother. I’ll never forget him.”

The police concluded from Richard’s writing that he was preoccupied with death, but Brebber differs. She said her brother was an avid writer, especially during his time at Kuper Island Residential School.

In the story below, Richard shares the origin of the Halalt Tribe, as told to him by his father. The composition was published in a collection of legends written and preserved by Indigenous children. It shows Richard’s deep commitment to his people even as he attended residential school — a system designed to alienate students from their culture.

The Halalt Tribe

Once, many many moons ago, there was a very kind man.

He lived in Saanich for a long time all by himself.

He had not seen another person since his father had died of some kind of sickness.

His mother had died a few hours after he was born.

From the time that he was only ten years old he knew how to hunt, carve, make weapons, to kill animals, and how to make shelters for himself while out hunting.

He knew how every animal looked and smelled.

But he never knew what a woman looked like.

One day while out hunting he saw a strange creature walking around with two legs and two arms.

It looked like himself, so he decided to capture it. He made the estranged trap.

It was round on one side and was square on the other.

It was big enough for a person to stand in. He saw that the creature came through the same part of the woods once every two days about when the sun is directly overhead.

He put the invisible trap on the trail just, in time, for he could hear it coming.

He ducked into some brush and waited.

When he heard the creature scream he knew that he had caught it.

Now he was able to get a better look at it and he noticed that he had the same features as he had.

He wondered if it could speak.

He spoke to it in his own language through a little round hole in the trap.

To his surprise it answered him. He realized that this must be a woman.

After a while he questioned her about her life.

He found out that her parents also had died a few years ago.

The man decided to call his woman Halalt, after a beautiful fish that he had one day seen his father catch, because he thought that she too was beautiful.

She decided to call him Michgin.

When they were very old they had many grandchildren.

These young people wanted to call themselves the Michgins, but he said before he died. “This is Halalt’s tribe.”

There is still a tribe called Halalt. I know this, because I am one.

Written by Richard Thomas, told by his father. Published in Tales from the Longhouse: by Indian Children of British Columbia, 1973.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or 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.

Top image: Submitted by Belvie Brebber | Editing: Andre Mayer

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