Connie Walker: Before we start the show, we want to let you know that this episode contains references to violence and sexual abuse against children. Please take care while listening.
Connie: Where I come from, the open plains are broken up by gravel roads that intersect every mile or so, and small paved highways, linking tiny town to tiny town. Driving at night on these roads, it can feel like you're the only person around for miles and miles. And on the nights where there's no moon, it's dark and heavy and quiet. If something happened out here, it might never be discovered.
Connie: One night in the late 1970s, something did happen—two men met out here in the darkness. Their chance encounter felt like fate because they had met before, but under very different circumstances. One of those men was my dad.
Connie: He was a police officer in rural Saskatchewan. My dad was driving alone in his patrol car when he spotted a set of tail lights swerving ahead of him in the darkness. He flicked on his lights, and the car pulled over on the side of the road. My dad got out of his cruiser, and walked up to the driver's side window. He motioned for the man inside to roll it down, and as he raised his flashlight, he realized he recognized the man behind the wheel. He knew that face, those eyes, the white collar under his chin. And he saw the man recognized him, too.
Connie: For a moment, neither of them moved. Then my dad opened the door, grabbed the man by his collar and dragged him out of the car. He hit him again and again, until he was tired and out of breath. My dad walked back to his patrol car, and drove off into the night, leaving the man crumpled on the side of the road.
Connie: There were no witnesses. The only people who knew what really happened were the two men who were there. But this is how I imagine the story. It's a story that my father told that was later told to me. Hearing it has changed the way I think about my life, because the man who my dad beat up that night was a priest. A priest who abused him in residential school.
Connie: I'm Connie Walker. From Gimlet Media and Spotify, this is Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's.
Connie: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Okay. I am just arriving in Duck Lake, and I'm on my way to meet my brother Hal at his house, which actually used to be my dad's house. If I can find it. Because I think I've actually only been there, like, a couple of times. It's kind of weird, I guess, maybe to not know where your dad lived.
Connie: It's around four o'clock in the afternoon on a warm summer day in August. I've just pulled onto a small highway in central Saskatchewan. As I drive, there are fields of wheat on either side and big stretches of open sky. I know this place. I used to live here. But I haven't been back in a long time. The road I'm on connects the small town of Duck Lake to the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree nation.
Connie: This is my dad's home. And my brother Hal lives here now. He's the one who first told me the story of my dad and the priest, so that's why I'm here—to ask him about it.
Connie: Okay. This is a road called Constable Cameron road. My dad would have been Constable Cameron, but this road is actually named after my sister who was also Constable Cameron. She followed in my dad's footsteps. And I'm pretty sure they lived down this road. He lives down this road. It's a pretty big hint.
Connie: My dad's name is Howard Cameron. He's my father, but I didn't know him very well. My mom and I used to live here with him, but they split up when I was seven, and we left. I didn't see or hear from my dad until I was a teenager and came back to the reserve to visit.
Connie: But whenever I would come here, I wouldn't stay with my dad. I would stay with my godparents, my Auntie Lois and my uncle Ernie.
Connie: The first time I came back to Beardy's I was 14—old enough to ride the bus alone. My Auntie Lois and Uncle Ernie picked me up from the bus depot and I stayed with them. When they asked me if I wanted to see my dad, I kind of felt like I had to say yes.
Connie: And then, while I was here visiting them, I would have a visit with my dad and my brothers and sisters, including Hal.
Connie: By then, my dad had a new life with a new wife and four more children. I remember walking into his kitchen, and immediately being surrounded by little kids, and having all of them hug me and call me "Sister." Hal was one of them.
Connie: Okay. That—this has to be it.
Connie: As I pull up, I see Hal waiting outside for me.
Connie: What are you doing? Just golfing?
Hal Cameron: I don't know. I was sitting by the fire.
Connie: Like most Camerons, he's obsessed with golf, and he's holding a club practicing his swing.
Connie: Oh, nice! Okay, hold on. Let me grab my bag. Is your dog friendly?
Hal Cameron: Oh, yeah. He's a gentle giant. And a little bit, like, skittish of new people, but once he warms up to you ...
Connie: How are you doing?
Hal Cameron: Good. Went—well, for the past, like, last week, it's like medicine-picking season.
Hal Cameron: So, like, I went all last week picking.
Connie: What kind of medicines are you picking?
Hal Cameron: Today went out for sweet grass.
Connie: Oh, my God. It smells so good already. Wow!
Hal Cameron: So I picked—I picked probably with this, it'll be over 20 braids so far.
Connie: We walk over to a cluster of birch trees. Inside is a small fire pit. Hal says our dad built this set up, including the wooden benches surrounding the fire. He lights a pipe as we sit down.
Connie: This is so nice out here.
Hal Cameron: Mm-hmm. It's nice to be able to just be in a nice little secluded spot. Fire's not really gonna go anywhere here, and it's nice and quiet.
Connie: Hal is 32. His full name is Howard Cameron Jr. Which is fitting, because Hal really takes after my dad. They look alike with their jet black hair and brown skin. But Hal's very different than my dad was at his age. He's easygoing and gentle. A few months ago, Hal shared that story about my dad beating up the priest on Facebook, and as soon as I read the post, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I called Hal on the phone, and then I decided to come home with a microphone. But interviewing your brother is kinda weird.
Connie: What is your job?
Hal Cameron: Cultural resource support worker. Basically just like ...
Connie: What kind of tobacco do you smoke?
Hal Cameron: It's a blend.
Connie: Are you gonna quit? [laughs]
Hal Cameron: Um ...
Connie: Do you think you'll stay here?
Hal Cameron: I don't know. Like, I think ...
Connie: The truth is, I haven't spent that much time with Hal. I'm 12 years older than him. We didn't grow up together because we have different moms, and it feels like we had different dads too.
Hal Cameron: My dad and I were pretty—we were pretty close. So, like, I was always, like, kind of by his hip and, like we spent so much time together. So I remember lots of, like, doing things with him and, like, him taking me to go sweet grass picking and things like that. Like, I remember, like, just having heart to hearts with dad.
Connie: The way Hal talks about our dad feels foreign to me. I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable even calling him "Dad." Not just because I didn't spend much time with him, but because the man I remember didn't feel like a dad.
Connie: I only have a few memories of him from when I was a kid, and I don't think any of them are good. Some are hazy impressions of his presence, of what it felt like to be near him. Like, I can picture him sitting in a velour armchair, one that swivels or rocks. He's watching TV and eating radishes out of the bag, his jaw muscles clenching with every bite. I remember how tense I felt, how small and quiet I tried to make myself when he was around, how I tried to avoid whatever it was that would set him off. There are also memories that are very clear. Most of them are at night when I'd be woken up by his bursts of anger, the sounds of his violence filling the house, filling my head.
Connie: I remember flashes: running away from him, me and my mom dipping into dark alleys hiding from him, trying to get to the safety of a relative's house. So when he and my mom split up when I was seven, it was a relief. It was like we escaped.
Connie: And as an adult, I didn't see my dad very often. When I did, I could see that he had changed, that he was a different father to my younger brothers and sisters. But I was cautious. Whenever I saw my dad, he would tell me that he loved me, but we never talked on the phone, and we only saw each other once every few years. My memories of him from my childhood were enough to make me want to keep my distance.
Connie: And I've kept that distance from my dad. But there is something about the story of him pulling over the priest that feels like a clue—one that could help me figure out why he was the way he was.
Hal Cameron: Yeah. I don't know, actually—I don't know how the conversation came about, but I remember we were driving, and then he started talking about how he saw a vehicle driving on the highway, and it was kind of swerving, so he figured that they're impaired.
Connie: Hal says it was about 10 years ago that my dad told him the story.
Hal Cameron: So he went and pulled them over. And when he walked up to the window, asked for their identification or driver's license, he recognized him as being one of the priests that—and he said, "One of the priests that abused me in residential school." He ended up, like, taking them out of the vehicle and beating the shit out of him. In that moment, I guess he just wasn't—didn't care what the consequences were.
Connie: And what did he say happened?
Hal Cameron: He thought for sure there would be a call to his commanding officer, and that would be the end of his career. But there was no call or anything came in.
Connie: What was his mood when he was telling you that?
Hal Cameron: Like, no—no regrets, no remorse for what he had done.
Hal Cameron: And this was an instance where justice was taken into our own hands. I felt this, like, pride. Almost I wanted to, like, warrior cry, to feel like that pride. [laughs]
Connie: I can understand why Hal feels pride when he thinks of that story, but that's not what I felt. I felt sick, because immediately I thought of my dad as the boy he was at residential school.
Connie: Did you get a sense of what kind of abuse he endured?
Hal Cameron: Ge shared about, like, he did, like, experience, like, sexual abuse.
Connie: That was my fear when I read Hal's post, when I first heard it was a priest my dad pulled over. I knew my dad went to a residential school, but I never thought about what it was like for him, which is surprising given the amount of time I've spent reporting on what happened to children there. They were called schools, but the focus wasn't really education. They were funded by the federal government, and most were run by the Catholic Church.
Connie: It was a perfect union. The government wanted to quell Indigenous resistance, and continue its colonization of Canada. And the church was eager to indoctrinate as many Indigenous children as it could. Residential schools became machines of assimilation. They separated Indigenous kids as young as four years old from their families and communities, to get rid of the "Indian problem," to strip away our culture, our language, our very identities.
Connie: There were more than a hundred schools that operated for over a hundred years. Generations and generations of kids were forced to go. There were at least 20 residential schools in Saskatchewan alone. One of them was the St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Duck Lake. I think that's where my dad first crossed paths with the priest who abused him. I drove past it on my way to Hal's house. It was a big red brick building, three or four stories high. It always looked to me like an abandoned hospital, like something out of a horror movie.
Connie: St. Michael's was one of the last schools to close in 1996. And then the truth about residential schools began trickling out—about the rampant neglect and abuse that happened inside school walls, abuse often inflicted by the priests and nuns who ran them. Very few were ever held responsible.
Connie: In 2008, Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thousands of residential school survivors testified about the physical and sexual abuse they endured. And other horrific discoveries came to light. At some schools, nutritional experiments were carried out on children. One school used a homemade electric chair as a form of punishment. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that what happened in residential schools was cultural genocide.
Connie: And last spring, ground-penetrating radar found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. It made international news, and it seemed like people were finally starting to pay attention to what survivors have been saying for decades.
Connie: It's been said that there's not a single Indigenous person in Canada who's not been touched by the legacy of residential schools. And I know that's true. I felt it the moment I heard it, but I've never connected the dots in my own family. I've done this reporting for years, but when it comes to individual schools like St Michael's, and individual stories like my dad's, there is still so much that's unknown. It's like the biggest open secret that we just don't talk about.
Connie: But my brother Hal saw how residential school haunted our dad throughout his life. He told me it came up in unexpected ways, that even the most mundane things would remind him.
Hal Cameron: I remember we started walking up steps, and there's like that black metal or that cage kind of step.
Connie: Mm-hmm. Like a fire escape.
Hal Cameron: Yeah. And it kind of like echoes when you step on it? I got to the top and I was gonna open the door, and I looked back and he was, like, kind of at this top step, and he was like, he had the railing and he was, like, kinda like hunched over and, like, looking down, like, focusing on something. And he kind of gathered himself and we went in, but then on the way home, he told me that that was a trigger for him because that was the same stairs that they had at the residential school. So when he heard it, it brought him back because those reminded him that he was going back in there. And I was like, holy fuck. Just imagine what the stairs, what that did to him.
Connie: Learning that what happened to my dad at residential school followed him his whole life, learning that he was sexually abused by a priest, I can't unhear it. I can't ignore it. I tried. But now I'm here, sitting with my brother, Hal, at my dad's old house, feeling like I need to understand how the father I remember was impacted by the priest who abused him.
Connie: Did he tell you who the priest was or anything about him?
Hal Cameron: No, he didn't. No, no. Or maybe he did. I just didn't, like, remember the name. But no. I—yeah, I've only just created this image in my head of what this person looks like.
Connie: What do you imagine he looks like?
Hal Cameron: He's in black and white. [laughs] Like, I don't even see a complexion. There's just, like, this black and white film, but he just has these, like, dark-rimmed glasses, very pale, white hair, and has, like, really big, intense eyes. Like, you see people who have, like, just hate in their eyes? Like that.
Connie: Now that's how I imagine the priest too.
Connie: One of the last times I visited my dad was when I brought my six-week-old daughter home to meet my family. There's a photograph from that visit that I love: my dad's smiling, with his mouth open and looking up at me while cradling my daughter in his arms. His hair is black, but starting to gray on the sides. He looks strong and healthy.
Connie: Eight months later, he was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, and we came home to see him again. By then, he'd already lost a lot of weight. I remember he was very sick, but he sat up with us at the kitchen table and held my girl in his lap. By February, he was in the hospital, and we were called in to say goodbye. He was only 58 when he died.
Connie: I saw him three times that year. It was the most I'd seen him since I was a kid. I had always imagined that at some point in my life, I would take the time to get to know my dad, to talk to him, to reconnect. When he died, I thought I lost that chance, and I came to accept that my understanding of him and our relationship was going to stay the way we left it.
Connie: But now it feels like a door has been cracked open, like there might be a chance to write a new story for me and my dad. I feel like the answers are here for me if I want them. But I know unearthing this story will also unearth a lot of painful memories, not just for me, but for my family. I need their help to find out more about what happened to my dad. And I kind of feel like I need their permission.
Connie: Is that your garden? Oh, nice. What are you growing?
Auntie Ivy: In the box here, I have beets.
Connie: Oh, wow. What are you gonna do with your beets?
Auntie Ivy: I'm gonna can them. I love canned beets.
Connie: After leaving Hal's, I drive over to my Auntie Ivy's house on the reserve. My dad was one of 15 Cameron kids. My Auntie Ivy is one of the younger siblings, but she's become a sort of family caretaker, the one everyone turns to when they need help. She takes me over to her gazebo where there's a table and chairs set up.
Connie: Can I have some of this too?
Auntie Ivy: Yeah.
Auntie Ivy: There's coffee in the thermos there, the tea in the teapot.
Connie: A few minutes later, my Auntie Leona arrives with her grandkids.
Auntie Leona: Hi, how are you?
Connie: Good, how are you? So good to see you. Your hair is so long, both of you.
Connie: My Auntie Leona lives just across the road, and must have heard we were having a visit. My aunties look alike. They both have big smiles and long, long dark hair. My Auntie Ivy keeps hers in a braid, but my Auntie Leona's is held up by a barrette and flows down her back.
Auntie Leona: Yeah our hair is annoying us.
Auntie Ivy: I can't have my hair down.
Auntie Ivy: It drives me insane.
Auntie Leona: And I can't have my hair up like that.
Connie: In a braid even? No?
Auntie Leona: Oh, it just drives me nuts.
Auntie Ivy: That's the only way people can tell us apart. [laughs]
Connie: My Auntie Ivy's house was built behind another house that I remember well: My Kokum Mary's house—my dad's mom. We lived there with my Kokum Mary for a while when I was little. The yard where the grandkids are playing now is the same one that I played in. And the same one that my dad played in when he was a kid.
Auntie Ivy: I remember the one time, I don't know what the heck was going on, but anyway, there was an argument. Somebody was standing on the porch or on the steps.
Connie: Right here at this house?
Auntie Ivy: At this house.
Connie: My Auntie Ivy tells me about a time when my dad and my uncle Ernie got into an argument.
Auntie Ivy: And Ernie grabbed the mop that was sitting in water, just slapped this person.
Auntie Leona: Oh, no!
Auntie Ivy: Well, your dad grabs the gun, and Ernie is running zig zag down the road there so he wouldn't get shot.
Connie: The ability to laugh about things that are dark is a gift that all Cree people seem to have—especially in my family. We're talking about my dad as a boy taking a gun and shooting at his brother, my uncle Ernie. He's the uncle I used to stay with when I came home. He's my godfather, and in some ways I was closer to him than to my dad. My Uncle Ernie died last year, also of lung cancer.
Connie: My aunties say that he and my dad were a lot alike. They were a few years apart in residential school, and after school, they both joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I don't know much about that period in my dad's life, other than it was around the time I was born.
Connie: Do you know why my dad joined the RCMP?
Auntie Leona: No, I think he just—they were doing a recruiting thing.
Connie: A few years ago, the RCMP tweeted out a photo from its archives. It was of my dad. It was jarring to scroll past the picture of him in my Twitter feed, but I instantly recognized him. In the photo, he looks just like my little brother. He's standing next to an old police car in his uniform. He has one hand on his hip and he's looking very serious. His eyes are narrowed, and his jaw muscles are clenched. I retweeted the picture, and a bunch of people responded with questions like when was the photo taken? Where was he stationed? Which division was he in? I couldn't answer any of them. And now, when I look at it, I have my own questions.
Like, was this taken before or after he beat up the priest?
Connie: Did you guys see Hal's status about my dad when he was an officer, and he pulled over a priest from residential school?
Auntie Ivy: Mm-hmm. He had told me the story, but not—not at the time.
Auntie Ivy: Yeah.
Connie: What did he say about it?
Auntie Ivy: Well, he just was kind of proud of himself because of what he did. [laughs] I don't really remember the total story, though.
Lindsay: Telling that story with a big smile.
Connie: Did he ever say who it was? Which priest?
Auntie Ivy: No. I don't remember the priest. My brothers, yeah, they didn't really talk about things that happened. Like, even to this day, they don't talk about what happened to them at residential school. They just don't want to talk about it.
Connie: I can understand that feeling of not wanting to talk about painful memories from your childhood because for a long time, I didn't want to talk about the memories I have of my dad. I think in part, because I'm still dealing with them. I still sometimes have dreams of being chased, of trying to get away from some imminent danger. I wake up with my heart racing, and fear and adrenaline coursing through my body. Despite the lingering effects of his anger on my life, I've never fully understood where that came from in him. But it seems like having a microphone is giving us all permission to talk about things we've never talked about before.
Connie: I remember my dad drinking when I was a kid, and that he was—he was very—he was mean. He was ...
Auntie Leona: Abusive.
Auntie Leona: Yeah.
Auntie Ivy: He had very short temper. Like, you had to be very careful of what you said or did because yeah, he would fly off the handle like—like that, you know?
Connie: Yeah. Even when he was sober.
Auntie Leona: Mm-hmm.
Auntie Ivy: Yeah. Like, my kids don't know what we went through. And they need to be educated and I don't know how they're gonna get it. I don't know how, what's gonna be the outcome of this whole ...
Auntie Leona: But I think that's—that's our error as parents, because that's what we were taught. I never told them anything about residential school.
Connie: All of my dad's brothers and sisters went to the St. Michael's Indian Residential School. This is the first time I've heard any of them talk about it.
Auntie Ivy: And I think that's where we went wrong. What we suffered, they don't know about.
Auntie Ivy: And what we had to endure that wasn't ours, they don't know about. So stuff like that you just try and bury. Just to not think about it on a—like, to affect your life.
Connie: But the thing about trauma is that it doesn't often stay buried. It keeps popping up. And one of the ways to heal is to talk about it.
Auntie Ivy: It's the trauma that's caused a lot of heartaches.
Auntie Ivy: And they always wonder why. Well, now you know.
Connie: Bye. It's so nice to see you.
Auntie Ivy: Yeah, good night.
Connie: I should let you guys go inside. It's getting cold out.
Auntie Ivy: No, no. I'm good. Are you cold?
Connie: No, I'm okay. I'm all right.
Connie: The kids all go inside, and I know I should let my aunties go in too. But I don't want to leave. Learning the story from Hal and hearing my aunties talk about my dad is helping me realize that his life went beyond my bad memories, that there's more to his story.
Auntie Ivy: He had to find that, and he had to work on it to become who he was. Because he was very humble at the end.
Auntie Leona: Yes.
Auntie Ivy: Like, not—not the mean Howard that I knew growing up. He was very gentle, especially with the kids. Like, I couldn't believe the amount of patience he had with the kids. And I said, "What? That's not the Howard that I grew up with."
Connie: I'm soaking up every story, every insight my aunties are giving me. Talking and laughing and crying with them as the light fades to black, I'm starting to see what I've been missing: my dad, my family. This place. And I'm going to find that what happened to us is part of a far bigger story than I realized.
Connie: It's pitch black when I finally leave my auntie's house and get in my car to drive the hour back to my hotel in Saskatoon.
Connie: Oh, my God. Okay. It is 10:41. I got to my Auntie Ivy's at 6:45, I think. So I was there for, like, four hours. It was just—so hard to describe how I'm feeling because it's such a mixture of emotions, and that, like, it feels amazing on one hand because I feel like I'm remembering a part of myself with every conversation. In talking with them, it feels familiar. And then also obviously, the people that we're talking about, like my dad, my Kokum Mary, you know, like, those were people that I spent a lot of time with and I was closer to, but that who I then really kind of lost when I was seven and we left here.
Connie: And so it feels so good to kind of be reminded of them and reconnect with them all in a way. But then it's also just so sad because—because my dad passed away, and the only way I can get to know him now is through these interviews and these conversations with people who knew him better than I did.
Connie: My dad was stolen from me because his childhood was stolen from him—by residential school, but also by a man in a black robe. Their lives first intersected at residential school when my dad was a boy and the priest a grown man. And then they collided again years later, one night on the side of a dark road in Saskatchewan.
Connie: My dad's life was cut short when he passed away in 2013. But what happened to this priest? Who was he? And can I find him?
Connie: This season on Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's.
Gerry Bell: I was so used to getting up in the morning, running outside, playing with my dog, going to visit my grandparents. And all that was taken away.
Connie: Did you understand any English when you arrived?
Cookie: Nothing at all, Connie. Nothing.
Grace: They wanted to kill the Indian in me. They sure did.
Lorraine: He is the one that said he was sexually abused by a priest.
Connie: Did he say which priest?
Lorraine: Um ...
Eugene: I said, You know what, Father? Let me tell you something. I tracked you down."
Connie: What is this? It looks like they're photos of boys undressing.
Connie: Do you sometimes lie? Are you lying to me now?
Connie: Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's is a Gimlet Media and Spotify original production. The show is hosted and reported by me, Connie Walker. Additional reporting by Betty Ann Adam. Reporting and producing by Chantelle Bellrichard, Max Green and Anya Schultz. Our supervising producer is Ellen Frankman. Our editor is Devon Taylor. Our consulting editor is Heather Evans.
Connie: Additional editorial support from Lydia Polgreen, Reyhan Harmanci, Jonathan Goldstein and Saidu Tejan-Thomas. Fact checking by Naomi Barr.
Connie: Original music by Emma Munger, Cris Derksen and Raymond Cameron. Scoring, sound design and mixing by Emma Munger. Music supervision by Liz Fulton.
Connie: Legal support from Iris Fischer, Nathalie Russell, Whitney Potter and Rachel Strom.
Connie: If you have information that you'd like to share about St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, you can write to us at: stolen(@)spotify.com. If you are a survivor or intergenerational survivor of Canada's residential school system and you need help, there's a 24-hour support line you can call: 1-866-925-4419. And if you or someone you know is dealing with physical or sexual violence, you can find resources in your area by going to Spotify.com/stolen.
Connie: Thank you for listening.