Burden of proof
After the residential school in Nova Scotia closed in the late ‘60s, Debbie Paul was kidnapped by a nun and brought to a white family in the U.S. She always told people this, but was missing the evidence. Until now.
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Standing at the site of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, Debbie Paul clutches a black and white picture of herself taken when it shut down in June 1967.
Paul was the last Mi’kmaw student to leave.
“This picture was taken to give to my mother and my mother never received it,” said Paul, who lives in the Sipekne’katik First Nation, just five kilometres away from the former residential school.
In the photo, she is 12 years old, wearing new shoes and a new watch, unaware her life was about to take an incredible turn. Rather than return Paul to her mother, a nun with the Sisters of Charity – Halifax took her without consent to live with a white family in the United States.
When Paul pushed for answers years later, her mother said she just never came home when the school closed. “She signed no papers for me to be adopted out or taken across the United States border,” said Paul.
After the residential school closed and the rest of the students left, that nun, Sister Mary Gilberta, kept Paul back at the institution. Paul says she told her to keep out of sight. Within days, they left for the airport.
Paul would spend the next year with Sister Gilberta’s brother, John Wentworth, and his wife, Mary, in Massachusetts.
“They took me without permission,” said Paul. “And all that family did was abuse me.”
Debbie Paul survived the residential school only to become part of the Sixties Scoop, the practice of adopting or fostering Indigenous kids to white families.
Canada signed a class-action settlement agreement in 2017 and within a year, survivors of the Sixties Scoop, like Paul, were able to apply for compensation.
“I think I deserve it, to live the end of my life,” said Paul, who is now 66. “Because I went through hell.”
But in March 2020, her claim was rejected. She wasn’t told why, but she has a strong suspicion. Collectiva, the administrator for the Sixties Scoop class action settlement, can access adoption and foster records, which for the most part are held by the provinces. But Sister Gilberta acted on her own, leaving no apparent paper trail.
“I have no proof. No records.”
The nun died in 2007, and so the onus shifted to Paul to find evidence that she was placed in the care of a non-Indigenous family in the U.S. between 1967 and 1968.
“I have no proof. No records,” Paul said.
Collectiva said it will accept an affidavit, but most of the people who can corroborate her story are no longer alive. Paul worries that if nothing about her claim changes, she’ll be denied compensation.
And so she has had to conduct her own search for answers — and proof — about what happened to her after the residential school closed. A CBC Investigates team recently travelled with Paul to the U.S. to help find her documents and chronicle her journey.
“When you’re a little girl with the rezzie school, [you hear] ‘You’re lying, you’re a little thief, you’re lying.’ Now, I notice myself saying, ‘Please believe me, I’m not lying,’” said Paul.
“It’s important. Maybe my story will come out and help others.”
- Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.
The residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., which opened to Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik students in 1930, was funded by the Canadian government and run by the Roman Catholic Church. The Sisters of Charity – Halifax handled the day-to-day operations and teaching.
Paul spent five years there, starting in 1962. She recalls beatings and other harsh punishments, especially if any students spoke Mi’kmaw. Photographs from the Sisters of Charity archives often portray lighthearted moments, but Paul said the reality held dark undertones.
One picture shows Paul and Sister Gilberta in a small group, with the children dressed in “Indian” costumes and Gilberta wearing a headdress.
“We were singing ‘one little, two little, three little Indians,’” said Paul, lightly singing the tune. “Yeah, that’s what it was, and we were all happy we were little Indians. Actually, she called us savages — ‘One little, two little, three little savages.’ That’s the way they did it.”
Sister Gilberta, whose real name was Eleanor Keller, taught at the institution from 1955 to 1967; the Sisters of Charity archives refers to her as “Disciplinarian of Girls.” She also directed the choir — and music is what made Debbie Paul stand out.
She had a love and talent for piano, and while she was at the residential institution, Paul played the organ during Sunday mass.
A handwritten entry dated April 18 and 20, 1967, reads, “Sister Gilberta entered the children from the residential school in the annual East Hants Windsor Musical Festival… Debby Paul won high praise for her vocal solo… We were all very proud of our Indian children.”
Two months after that, Gilberta hustled Paul through Halifax International Airport and onto a plane. Paul says she didn’t know where the nun was taking her, just that it carried the promise of continuing her music lessons. But she remembers how the nun conducted herself.
“Sister Gilberta, when we went across the border, it was like, show and tell,” said Paul. “‘I got this cute little Indian girl. She’s my ward, I’m looking after her.’”
Gilberta took Paul to the town of Rockland, Mass., and abandoned her there with the nun’s brother and his family. Paul would see Gilberta a few times while she was there, but the pledge of music lessons was never borne out.
Paul says she doesn’t recall seeing any other Indigenous people, and rarely any people of colour, in Rockland back in 1967-68. She says her time with the Wentworths is full of painful memories. After about a year, without any notice, Paul says John Wentworth put her on a plane and sent her back to Nova Scotia all by herself. She was 13.
Paul ended up going to an Indian day school before running away at age 17. She eventually went on to university, got married and lived in Boston for many years before moving back to Sipekne’katik First Nation. But the mystery and trauma of her dislocation in the 1960s never left her.
In an effort to locate a paper trail, Paul called the Sisters of Charity – Halifax earlier this year to explain what happened and to ask if Sister Gilberta left any documents.
“Nothing. They’re telling me it’s not there,” said Paul. “The records have to be somewhere. You don’t just take a child from Canada to the United States. But that’s what happened.”
CBC News contacted the Sisters of Charity – Halifax separately, and representative Angela Rafuse responded by email, saying, “Ms. Paul was in touch with us in January 2021 and we advised her we have no information in our Congregational Archives pertaining to her situation.”
Rafuse refused to answer questions about whether the Sisters of Charity were aware of what happened to Debbie Paul or what responsibility the order bears for the harmful actions of Sister Gilberta.
A few months ago, Paul called Rockland Public Schools for her student records from 1967-68, without luck. She was told the information is kept at the town archives.
“So, if I want to get them, I have to go there,” said Paul.
WATCH | The full documentary from The National:
COVID-19 restrictions kept the Canada-U.S. border closed for much of 2020 and 2021, but Paul told herself that as soon as it was open again, “I’m going.”
The U.S. border reopened to Canada on Nov. 8. Fully vaccinated, along with a booster shot, Debbie was keen to make the trip, though it stirred mixed emotions.
“Going back to Rockland is hard for me. That whole town…” Paul’s breath caught, and she paused. “I was only a little girl. The town didn’t want me there.”
On Nov. 30, she was on the way to Boston. During the flight, she pulled out her journal and started to write, keeping track of her journey. Eventually, Paul’s fears over returning to what was a difficult place and time in her life started to dissipate. “I feel good,” she said. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
After landing in Boston, Paul drove 35 kilometres south of Boston to Rockland, a small town with quiet streets and the odd American flag. Looking out the window as she passed the “Welcome to Rockland” sign, Paul said it felt strange to be back.
“If I had stayed in Rockland as a little girl, I would never have known where I came from,” she said.
Rockland has changed, she noted, but her recollections of the town are vivid. Paul remembers living with the Wentworths on Myrtle Street. When she and CBC visited the town archives, sure enough, Paul found the Wentworths’ address recorded in the 1968 List of Persons of the Town of Rockland: 104 Myrtle Street.
This was one important confirmation of what Paul has said all along.
Pulling up in front of the house on Myrtle Street, Paul got out of the car and crossed the quiet street to stare up at the ordinary-looking home, with its wide front porch and black shutters.
John and Mary Wentworth both died several years ago. Their own children have long grown up and moved away. But Paul’s painful memories are fresh. She described being treated as a maid and worse while in the Wentworth house. She said that included being abused by Sister Gilberta’s brother.
“It made me angry, what that man did to me,” Paul said the next day. “He said not to say anything, but that’s part of my chores: ironing, cleaning and letting this man feel me up … Isn’t that awful? That’s my chores. I was 12 years old.”
Taking a last look at the house, Paul said, “It helps to heal — to face it. Not to be scared of it … I can let it go now.”
While living in Rockland, Paul found refuge with a kind neighbour, Mary Rome, who lived a short bike ride away. Paul ended up playing a lot with the Rome children, and it was the only time she ever got to play the piano again.
“The other house was bad memories, but this little house was a good memory, a good house.”
CBC accompanied Paul to the house at 86 Summit Street, even though Rome and her family moved away long ago.
“They gave me so much love. Love I really needed. And Mrs. Rome did that,” said Paul. “I just loved it here. The other house was bad memories, but this little house was a good memory, a good house.”
Paul mourns the loss of what could’ve been if she had lived with the Romes instead of the Wentworths. Even her music faded away.
“It got lost,” she said. “Me playing the piano got lost.”
The afternoon was sunny but it had turned chilly. Paul drove through light traffic to her next stop.
While the pieces were slowly falling into place, Paul still needed documentation to show that she was in Rockland in 1967-68. She had already called Rockland Public Schools without luck. But when CBC News started digging, her story resonated with the administrator, who took on the search, digging into old boxes in the school vault.
Upon arriving at the school that afternoon, Paul was handed a folder with a single piece of paper: a student record from 1968 for Deborah Ann Paul, under the guardianship of Mrs. John Wentworth.
“Oh my god, I got my school records,” said Paul. “This is what I was looking for.”
She looked up, a bit shocked. “My god, this proves everything. This little piece of paper. And if the Sixties Scoop [settlement administrator] doesn’t accept this documentation, it’s got a grand seal and everything. It’s not made up.”
Overcome with emotion, Paul said, “Wow — I matter. I matter.”
WATCH | Debbie Paul talks about finding the records of her time in Rockland, Mass., in the late 1960s:
For Paul, the journey was as much about validation as about any sort of compensation.
“This is what happened to me. My little story. Last child to leave the residential school. And this is where I ended up. With no paper. No paper trail, nothing. And this is the only paper trail I have that says I was there,” she said.
“And I’m not lying.”
The trip to Massachusetts was emotionally gruelling for Paul, but she got a lift toward the end of it.
Before leaving Boston, Paul managed to set up a call from her hotel room with Mary Rome. Paul had lost touch with her long ago, and presumed the older woman had died. But CBC News managed to track her down. Now called Mary Shanklin, she is 93 years old and living in Saint John, N.B.
After decades apart, the two connected by Skype in a tearful reunion.
“Debbie, how wonderful,” said Shanklin. “You’ll make me cry.”
“Me, too,” said Paul, overwhelmed. “I just want to reach out and love you and hug you.”
During the call, Shanklin held up a little brown doll wearing First Nations regalia that Paul mailed to her 50 years ago. “You sent that to me the first Christmas you were gone,” said Shanklin. “I sat with it and cried.”
The two reminisced about good memories, but also about what Shanklin called “the heavy parts.” Paul made a promise to keep in touch.
WATCH | Debbie Paul reunites via Skype with old neighbour Mary Shanklin:
Three days after she left Nova Scotia, Paul arrived back at Halifax International Airport. The manner of her arrival was a stark contrast to June 1968, when the Wentworths abruptly put her on a plane and shipped her back to Canada without any documentation. Hours later, in the middle of the night, an airport janitor found the 13-year-old asleep on a bench by the international arrivals area.
“There was no letter. No nothing. Nobody picked me up,” recounted Paul. “I was just abandoned.”
This time around, as Paul passed through the airport on her way home to Sipekne’katik First Nation, she was armed with documentation — namely, the Rockland school records that she hopes will be enough for her Sixties Scoop claim.
Paul questions why the onus was on her to go through this incredible journey for one piece of paper. She says she can’t imagine that there are no records here in Canada. She said that if the residential schools kept a head count and were getting federal funding for each child, “there’s paperwork somewhere, simple as that.”
Paul says there must be documentation pertaining to Indigenous Peoples with federal and provincial governments, churches, hospitals and more.
“I’m no longer a lost child. My story matters. That’s what I’m taking home: I matter.”
“Reconciliation doesn’t start with me. Reconciliation starts with you,” she said, referring to the government and the church. “You open those books. You provide access to your documents.”
Within days of arriving home, Paul sent off her U.S. school records by priority post to Collectiva. Paul’s case is currently under review by the administrator for the Sixties Scoop settlement.
While she may receive compensation, it’s possible she may never have the answer to some questions — especially, how and why did Sister Gilberta steal a young Indigenous girl away, across an international border and abandon her in Rockland?
Despite that uncertainty, Paul feels her journey stateside gave her closure.
“I’m no longer a lost child. My story matters,” she said. “That’s what I’m taking home: I matter.”
LISTEN | Debbie Paul recounts her story on CBC Radio’s Unreserved:
Senior producer: Jillian Taylor | Design and editing: Andre Mayer | Lead image credit: Mike Heenan/CBC.
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.