Editor’s note: This article contains some graphic and disturbing details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to some readers.
VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Stories he heard about little girls digging graves for the burial of babies continue to haunt Alex Watts. The Vancouver man, who spent time in two residential schools in B.C., is heartbroken, following the discovery of the remains of 215 children on a former residential school site in Kamloops.
“I always knew there were remains on residential school grounds,” said Watts, who was separated from his family and taken to the first residential school at the age of eight.
Watts isn’t surprised to hear of the discovery, “but I am surprised it took them so long to find the remains of Indigenous children. It’s horrifying.”
“I mourn that loved ones were never found. There are a lot of stories saying they went home. But they didn’t go home. We know they didn’t go home,” he said, adding unspeakable things happened at residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
“Stories of fathers — they called them, back then, ‘fathers’ — decapitating kids, and little girls digging holes, not knowing what they were digging the holes for. They were burying babies,” he said.
“Others lost loved ones who … nobody knew where they went. I always knew in my heart that these young kids were being killed,” he added.
Listen: Survivor Alex Watts talks about the ripple effects of the residential school system
Watts was born in the Nisga’a village of Gingolx, in the Nass Valley of B.C. He attended residential school for two years: One year at the Alberni Indian Student Residence in Port Alberni and another at the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay. In his time at the schools, he was subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
“When the memories came back, graduation year, that’s when everything slowly fell apart for me, until I sobered up almost 13 years ago,” he said, adding he’s nearly 60 years old.
The remains in Kamloops were confirmed last weekend with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, according to Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation. It’s believed the deaths are undocumented, though a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
Watts insists the search for remains can’t stop.
“They should check these other locations where the schools are or were for remaining possible remains on the grounds because these lost souls need to be brought home. They need to be brought back to their lands,” he said.
Related article: Discovery of children’s remains at former Kamloops residential school an ‘unthinkable loss’
Watts believes, after the suffering he endured in the residential school system, there’s a reason he survived, adding most survivors won’t talk about their experiences.
“I have a brother who’s a survivor who never, ever talks about it. He’s older than me. I can tell that he’s struggling in life, but he doesn’t show … Bottom line, it’s just so horrifying. I’m lost for words,” Watts said.
He recalls a time in recent years when he gathered and spoke with other survivors, some of whom opened up.
“This elderly woman shared that she had to dig holes when she was a little girl — she’s in her eighties at the time when we talked,” he said.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School opened under Roman Catholic administration in 1890 and operated until 1969. The federal government took over the operation from the church to run as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on residential schools more than five years ago. The nearly 4,000-page account details the harsh mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children at the institutions, where at least 3,200 children died amid abuse and neglect.
To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has identified the names or information of more than 4,100 children who died in the residential school system. However, the exact number remains unknown.
To Watts, the impact residential schools had on Indigenous communities will never end.
“It’s that crazy ripple effect that happens of survivors teaching what they were taught in schools to their kids, and then it passes down and passes down. I don’t know if it will ever end. I do know… [many people] don’t even know why … their behaviour is so different in many ways. Because it was taught to them. It was passed down, generation by generation,” he said.
“The damage is done. It’s too horrifying.”
Watts works on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with vulnerable people.
“I see a lot of the Indigenous people, they don’t even realize they are the ripple effect. They heard of the residential school but they don’t know that they are part of it, the ripple effect of it. They’re lost.”
He believes today’s school system needs more education around the true history of Canada and Indigenous peoples, so people are taught “why the Indigenous communities are the way they are.”
“People say, ‘Get over it.’ How can you get over something like that?”
He remembers a time when a woman at a treatment facility asked him just that.
“One of the staff members says, ‘Well, they all got their money … Why don’t they all get over it?’ I just told them it’s not about the money. It’s about the trauma that they suffered through these schools. Money is just a small portion of compensation. I shared my experience and said, ‘This is what happened to me. Are you going to tell me to get over this?'”
That was enough for the woman to give pause to what she said.
“It just takes one person,” Watts said. “For myself, I can only share my experience, when it comes to somebody to tell … our people to get over it.”
Watts has been receiving counselling and expects to continue to do so for the rest of his life.
“There’s two things I tell people. One, don’t feel sorry for me. You weren’t there. Two, educate yourself on what these schools were built for,” he said, suggesting people also listen to a residential school survivor who is willing to share their experience.
“Books don’t always tell the truth,” Watts added.
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for former residential school students and others affected by the system. Emotional and crisis referral services are available through the 24-hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
The Tk’emlups te Secwépemc is expected to share completed preliminary findings by mid June.
With files from Dean Recksiedler, Hana Mae Nassar, Marcella Bernardo, Amy Quinton, and The Canadian Press