June 7, 2022

Episode 5: It's Not Over (S2 Surviving St. Michael's)

by Stolen

Background show artwork for Stolen

After the trauma of residential school, Connie’s dad and thousands of other survivors had to find a way forward. Canada eventually offered a path for compensation, but justice was rare. Now, decades later, is it too late for accountability?

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Connie Walker: Before we begin we want to let you know there are descriptions of violence and sexual abuse against children in this episode. Please take care while listening.

Connie: Previously on Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's.

Eugene Arcand: I don't think up 'til that point, any residential school survivor had confronted him with what I had.

Antoine Sand: Four, maybe five priests would take turns strapping that guy.

Cookie Esperance: I know. I know what happened. I lived it. For all the years, my growing up years that were taken away from me, that were taken away from me brutally.

Betty Ann Adam: Has there been anything that has helped you to heal?

Antoine Sand: My sweat lodge.

Frank Badger: The only justice I got out of that was the way I treated my kids. And we raised them right. That's the only justice I got was the way I loved my kids so much.

Connie: When I was in my early 20s, I had dinner with my dad at a restaurant in Saskatoon. I hadn't seen him in a while, and I remember sitting in a booth, my dad across from me and beside us my younger sister and brother: Sherri and Harry. My dad was basically a stranger to them. They were just babies when he and my mom split up and we left.

Connie: I don't remember what we ate or what we talked about, but at one point my dad got serious. He apologized to us. He said he was sorry for how he treated our mom, that he had changed. And he wished he could go back and be a different father to us. I don't remember what I said in response. I'm sure I saw how hard it was for him to say those words, but I'm also sure I wanted the moment to be over. I wasn't ready then to hear his apology. I didn't know my dad's story. I didn't know what happened to him at St Michael's.

Connie: What I know now would have helped me meet him in that moment, to face him with empathy and accept his apology. Before I knew about my dad's past, I never appreciated what he and thousands of other survivors were expected to overcome.

Connie: Survivors have been asked to get over it, but with no real reckoning, accountability or justice, how could they?

Connie: I'm Connie Walker. From Gimlet Media and Spotify this is Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's.

Connie: My dad's wife Norlaine told me his life changed in the summer of 1989. He was 34 at the time. He and Norlaine were married and had a new baby at home.

Connie: One night, my dad got a phone call. My oldest brother, Darwin Cameron, my dad's first born, had been in a car accident. He was 16. He and his friend were driving to meet their girlfriends and they rolled the car.

Connie: Norlaine says my dad rushed to the hospital in Saskatoon, and when he got there, he realized how badly his son was hurt.

Norlaine Cameron: I remember hearing him saying it. Whether he was praying or whether he was just talking to me, I heard him say that "If my son lives, I—I won't drink anymore."

Connie: Darwin survived, but he was paralyzed from the neck down. Norlaine says my dad did what he promised—he quit drinking.

Connie: So he just like, he quit drinking. And that was it?

Norlaine Cameron: That was it. Cold turkey, right. That's when ...

Connie: And how much was he drinking at that point?

Norlaine Cameron: He was drinking like every day.

Connie: Yeah.

Norlaine Cameron: Like, every day and sometimes, like, not eating, you know? Sometimes it was drinking right away when he'd wake up in the morning, and then drinking all day 'til he passed out.

Connie: I can't imagine how tough it must have been for him to quit. And I never realized it was Darwin's accident that pushed my dad to get sober. He wanted to be a better father.

Norlaine Cameron: He wasn't able to forgive himself. He blamed himself for Darwin.

Connie: Why did he blame himself?

Norlaine Cameron: He always felt like he could have took better care, I guess, of—of his kids. He carried a lot of that resentment, that guilt, that he missed out on lots with you kids, you know? And he was trying to make sure he didn't make those mistakes again.

Connie: Norlaine says my dad had regrets about Darwin, but also about all of us. And once he stopped drinking, everything he'd been trying to suppress came to the surface.

Norlaine Cameron: Him dealing with everything sober was just like torture for him, eh? It was just like struggling to find a happy medium. How do I deal with this shit? And, you know, then he actually—I don't know exactly who it was that he went to talk to, an old man that invited him to go to sweat with him.

Connie: Okay.

Norlaine Cameron: And that's how that started. And first it was just dad going. Like, you know, like, say every Sunday he'd, you know "Can you get me some bowls? I'm gonna go to sweat." "Okay. So, you know, I would.

Connie: I might be the only person in my family who's never been to a sweat, but I know for a lot of them it's an essential part of their lives. It's a ceremony, with prayer, singing and reflection. And Norlaine says it gave my dad something he'd been missing.

Norlaine Cameron: He wanted more. He wanted more, he wanted more, he just wanted to just take it all in. It was like something was awoken inside of him, and it had been missing or it was suppressed or whatever, right? And he just, you know, wanted to learn the songs. And he learned the songs, you know, like that. And he helped, you know, other pipe carriers and that, so he—it really engulfed himself in the role.

Connie: Embracing his spirituality affected every part of his life. Eventually, my dad built his own sweat lodge, ran feasts and helped with funerals. People started to see him as a cultural leader in the community. And his life at home changed too.

Norlaine Cameron: I was noticing when your dad was going to sweats and stuff like that, a change in him. Like a—there was, like, something softer. He wasn't so hard, you know? He was different. It was nothing for him to hug me in public, hold my hand in public, to kiss me in public, to hug the kids too, you know?

Connie: Yeah.

Norlaine Cameron: And when he finally reached that turning point, I'll say, it's just like his eyes were wide open and he was seeing the beauty of things around him for the first time, you know? And, that's when things started getting better.

Connie: My dad was healthier and happier. And while he was quietly rebuilding his life, the horrors of residential schools were becoming a national conversation in Canada.

[NEWS CLIP: Today, the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called for an inquiry into one of the rawest wounds of native history. Residential schools were operated mainly by churches ...]

Connie: In a TV interview in 1990, prominent First Nations leader Phil Fontaine spoke openly about his time at an Oblate-run residential school in Manitoba.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Fontaine: We talked about physical abuse. We talked about psychological abuse, deprivation, and of course sexual abuse.]

Connie: The majority of Canada was oblivious to what went on in the schools, so when Fontaine became one of the first survivors to speak out publicly, it was a shocking moment for the country.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Frum: What form of abuse were you talking about in your own case?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Fontaine: Well, I—that's something that's, as you well understand. incredibly delicate, sensitive, and very much a private matter. If we took an example, my grade three class, if there were 20 boys in this particular class, every single one of the 20 would've experienced what I experienced.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Frum: But are you saying everyone of 20 was sexually abused?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Fontaine: They've experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.]

Connie: The interviewer sounds skeptical. There's a sense of disbelief that what Phil Fontaine is saying could be true. But his words broke the dam for countless others who'd been carrying their stories, often alone.

Connie: Over the next decade, more and more survivors started opening up about their experiences and demanding justice. They filed lawsuits against the Canadian government and the churches, seeking damages for the abuse they suffered. For years, the government and the churches fought them, but eventually it became clear that the cases weren't going to let up. Survivors started winning, and being awarded large sums of money.

Connie: By the early 2000s, there were as many as 20,000 active lawsuits. At one point, the Oblates, who ran 48 of Canada's residential schools, said they feared the cases would bankrupt them. The churches and the government were desperate to limit their liability, and wanted to settle with the thousands of survivors who were suing them. So in 2006, 16 years after Phil Fontaine spoke publicly about his abuse, a settlement was reached.

Connie: Through the settlement, residential school survivors could apply for compensation from the government. At least $10,000 was awarded to everyone who was eligible, and survivors could receive up to $275,000 if they had been abused. But if they took the money, they had to give up their right to sue again. Many survivors needed it, so they applied—but it often came at a terrible price. Because first, they had to revisit their childhood traumas from residential school through what was called the Independent Assessment Process, or the IAP.

Connie: The IAP compensated survivors without them having to go to court, which could take years. It was meant to be faster, easier and less confrontational, but many survivors say they still felt like their abuse and their memories were on trial.

Connie: They had spent their lives trying to forget what they went through in residential school, trying to block out the abuse. But the IAP forced them to lay everything bare. After they applied, they had to attend a hearing. In front of government lawyers, they were sworn in. Then the questions began. An adjudicator asked them in graphic detail about the abuse they experienced. What happened to you? How many times did it happen? Who did it? Over and over again, survivors were grilled about their memories of some of the worst moments in their lives.

Connie: What was it like for you sharing your story?

Vincent Daniels: It was traumatic. Very, very traumatic.

Carmen Tootoosis: They asked me to describe what happened in that room and why.

Maryann Napope: You know, I pretty well disclosed my whole life, you know, at that hearing.

Connie: The burden was on survivors to try to convince an adjudicator who would decide their case that what they were saying was true.

Corinne Cox: I tried to say as much as I could, and they told me that I was lying.

Vincent Daniels: They didn't really believe my story. I guess I didn't sound convincing enough. But I was really reluctant to tell it. That was the problem.

Antoine Sand: I couldn't even tell my story. I broke down in tears. Even now, when I think about it and talk about it, I get a choked up feeling.

Connie: One St Michael's survivor shared her IAP documents with us. To protect her privacy, we're not naming her. She said that a priest abused her when she was a young girl at the school, that he gave her candy and cookies and that he spoke to her in French. She remembers he put her on his lap and that his robe was slippery. She would slide off and he would pull her back up.

Connie: In her hearing, the adjudicator questioned her at length. She told him the priest fondled her, and that on two occasions, he touched her under her bloomers. But that wasn't enough detail.

Connie: The adjudicator said he needed to know exactly what the priest did to her. She struggled to say the words, and tried using hand gestures to show him. She was told that the gestures couldn't be entered into the record—she needed to say the words out loud. In the adjudicator's decision, he wrote that the survivor said the priest digitally penetrated her. He described her as an honest witness, but questioned how reliable and accurate her memory was. He suggested the priest may have accidentally touched her under her bloomers.

Connie: The adjudicator wasn't convinced this was sexual abuse and he denied her claim. The survivor appealed the decision, and a new adjudicator reviewed her testimony and concluded that yes, she had been sexually abused. She received a payment of about $33,000.

Connie: These hearings were closed to the public, but survivors were allowed to bring a support person with them, and Norlaine says for people on Beardy's that was sometimes my dad. He would sit next to them as they testified—sometimes for hours.

Norlaine Cameron: When he would come home from those hearings, he'd be just drained. He would just spend, like, couple hours in his little shack and he'd be just smudging. Sometimes he'd be just, you know, praying with this pipe. It was heavy.

Connie: My dad saw first hand how survivors were affected in the days and weeks following their hearings.

Norlaine Cameron: You know, sometimes he'd—he'd get a call in the middle of the night and he'd have to get up and he'd have to go and sit with somebody who just needed to talk or needed a smudge and, you know, like that, eh?

Connie: I had no idea my dad had been such a support for so many people in his community. And I also had no idea that he decided to apply for his own IAP hearing. Norlaine says at first he seemed strong and determined to tell his story, ready to take what he felt he was owed.

Norlaine Cameron: He was all gung ho, and he was going to, you know, gonna make them pay.

Connie: But as the date for his hearing approached, Norlaine started to see cracks in his strength. And she got worried.

Norlaine Cameron: I almost lost him. Like, he—I thought that he was gonna revert back to that angry person. You know, and I was so scared because he kept talking about the date is coming, and I was noticing he was agitated or, you know, showing a bit of frustration, but trying not to be obvious about it, eh? But I knew it was probably weighing on his mind. And many times I thought, "Oh God, he's gonna start drinking or, you know, he's gonna lose it."

Norlaine Cameron: And then it was about a week before he was supposed to go for that hearing, and I remember the one day he came home and he just broke down. It was just him and I. He said, "I can't." He said, "I can't. I don't want anybody to know." He said, "I don't want anybody to know what happened to me." He said, "I just can't." And I just—but he was like, you know? And I said, "You don't have to then. No, you don't have to then. We're not gonna do it then." You know? And we didn't, you know? But it was just too much, I guess.

Connie: I hate that my dad might have felt any shame about what happened to him. It was never his fault. It was done to him. But I understand why he didn't want to go through with it. There's a stigma attached to being a victim of sexual abuse, and the IAP made it worse because the victims were scrutinized, not the abusers. And this took a toll.

Connie: After testifying, so many survivors relapsed or got sick. Some died by suicide following their hearings. They were seeking some form of justice, and yet many only got more pain.

Connie: More than 26,000 people went through IAP hearings, and around 90 percent of the claims were found to be credible and were compensated. And every single survivor would have been asked to name their abusers. At the time that the hearings were happening, the government took those names and hired private investigators to track them all down. We talked to some of those investigators.

Glen: They would just give you a person's name that you got to try and track down.

Larry: I would get anywhere from three to eight people a day to try to locate.

Glen: And then the government sends them a letter saying that you've been identified by two or three people saying that you had molested them in this time frame at this school. Then he could respond and say, "Well, you know, they got the wrong person because I had nothing to do with it."

Connie: They found priests, nuns, former staff and students, but only to notify them of the allegation and give them the option to respond. That was it.

Larry: You know, in some cases, do I think that they should have been criminally charged? Yeah. Yeah, of course. I'm a former law enforcement. Yeah. But that wasn't my decision. I was a civilian contractor asked to try to find these folks, so I did that to the best of my ability, finding hundreds of them.

Connie: Survivors were essentially reporting thousands of crimes, crimes committed against them as children. But no one was ever charged through the IAP because it wasn't a criminal process. It was designed to offer financial compensation, and to keep all of the findings hidden.

Connie: To this day, IAP records are sealed to protect the privacy of survivors. As a result, the privacy of alleged abusers has been protected too. All IAP records will be destroyed in five years unless survivors ask for their records to be saved. The most complete accounting of the residential school experience in Canada will be lost forever.

Connie: That's one of the frustrating things about reporting on this story. I know the one very concrete thing that I'm searching for—the name of the priest who hurt my dad—has likely been documented because when my dad submitted his IAP application, he would have been asked to name his abuser. If he named a priest, it's on a piece of paper that the government has and that I can't see.


Harris Cameron: If anything happened to me, your dad looked after me. He—he got into a lot of fights, actually, over me.

Carol Cameron: They were just like this.

Connie: Yeah, you guys were close, eh?

Harris Cameron: Yeah. Very close, yeah.

Connie: Yeah. Because of your age, or because ...?

Carol Cameron: Howard kind of looked after him. He even sent him a quarter from Lebret.

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Connie: That's my Uncle Harris and his wife, my Auntie Carol. She says that after my dad left St. Michael's, when he went to another residential school in Lebret, he sent mail back to his little brother.

Harris Cameron: A quarter. Once in a while he sent me a quarter.

Connie: Like, in the mail?

Harris Cameron: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Connie: How would he get a quarter?

Harris Cameron: [laughs] I have no idea. No idea. That was lots of money back then.

Connie: Yeah! What would you do with it?

Harris Cameron: Not much. I just kept it because we had no place to spend it. We weren't even allowed to leave the yard.

Connie: At St. Mike's?

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Connie: Yeah.

Harris Cameron: You would get a lickin'.

Connie: Really?

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Connie: Was it the priests, or was it the people who worked there?

Harris Cameron: Priests. Priests, nuns, the childcare workers.

Connie: Terrible.

Harris Cameron: It was. I was even glad when that place burned down.

Connie: Do you remember which priests were there when you guys were there?

Harris Cameron: Yeah. Father Duhaime. Father Gauthier.

Connie: Do you remember anything about him?

Harris Cameron: Nothing good. [laughs] Nothing good.

Connie: Yeah.

Harris Cameron: He must be dead now, though.

Connie: He's not.

Harris Cameron: No?

Connie: He's still alive.

Harris Cameron: Really? Holy shit, he must be an old guy.

Connie: He's 89. and he lives in St. Albert, Alberta.

Harris Cameron: Really?

Connie: Yeah.

Connie: I ask my Auntie and Uncle if they've heard the story about my dad beating up the priest on the side of the road.

Connie: I—I'm curious about if you think you might know who that priest would be.

Harris Cameron: He kept things to himself, actually, your dad.

Connie: Yeah.

Connie: Every member of my family that I talk to says my dad mostly kept the details of his abuse to himself. Even when it came to the IAP, my Uncle Harris says he only just learned that my dad withdrew from the process.

Harris Cameron: I just found out about him not—not going through it on himself.

Connie: Oh. How did you find out?

Harris Cameron: Did some work at Norlaine's house across the river.

Connie: Uh-huh.

Harris Cameron: That's when she was telling us. That's the first time I heard of it.

Connie: Really?

Harris Cameron: Yeah. But he came—he came to mine when—he come and spoke up on my behalf.

Connie: My dad was with my Uncle Harris during his hearing.

Connie: That must've been a hard process to go through.

Harris Cameron: It was, yeah. Ii was, actually. You had to—I had to tell everybody what happened to you, and who did this and all that. I don't think I would've done it if your dad wasn't there.

Connie: And was he there for, like, supporting you, or was he there to, like, corroborate what happened?

Harris Cameron: Supporting me.

Connie: Yeah.

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Carol Cameron: He tried to charge that priest, him and another guy, but ...

Connie: You wanted to charge the priest who had abused you?

Harris Cameron: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. But nothing ever came of it.

Connie: Did you two go to the police? Is that ...

Harris Cameron: Went through my lawyer, but my lawyer didn't do a damn thing.

Connie: My Uncle Harris hired a lawyer to help him through the IAP, but he wanted more than compensation. He says he wanted his abuser to face criminal charges.

Connie: Is he still alive?

Harris Cameron: Hmm?

Connie: Is he still alive?

Carol Cameron: He was.

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Connie: Who is it?

Harris Cameron: Father Gauthier.

Connie: Father Gauthier?

Harris Cameron: Yeah.

Connie: Oh, I—I didn't know that about Father Gauthier and you, and I'm sorry to bring that up. It's—it's like—because I heard about him from Uncle Bill and Auntie Lorraine, and so I started looking into him to see, like, could he have been there when my dad was there? And then I found out he was there.

Harris Cameron: He was there, yeah.

Connie: And then I went to the library in Saskatoon, and I asked if they ...

Connie: I feel terrible that I talked about Father Gauthier earlier without realizing my uncle had also accused him of sexual abuse. That's now two of my dad's brothers who say that Father Gauthier sexually abused them at St. Michael's. I'm still thinking about that moment after I leave their house and drive away.

Connie: We just finished talking, and my uncle told me that Father Gauthier abused him in residential school. And that he thought that Father Gauthier would get charged, that something would happen. And nothing ever happened. And I was telling him about how he's still alive and living in Edmonton. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck. I didn't know. I didn't know. I didn't know.

Connie: When I get back to my hotel that night, I go over everything I've learned since coming home: all of the abuse children went through at St. Michael's, how all these survivors lived with their traumas from that school, how it's affected not just me and my dad, but every family. These are stories I never would've never known if I hadn't come home. And I think about all of the stories that have already been lost.

Connie: In one of my first interviews, I learned that my Uncle Ivan named Father Gauthier as the priest who sexually abused him. And now his brother, my Uncle Harris, told me he accused the same priest. I can't help but think about that article I read about Father Gauthier, about the quote where he said that maybe he should be in prison, but he never got caught. I think about how Eugene Arcand told me he confronted Gauthier at an event in 2014. Eugene said that multiple survivors there saw Gauthier and were afraid. I talked to two survivors who were also at that event and who saw what happened.

A.J. Felix: I was there with him when he did that. He just about killed him.

Connie: A.J. Felix and his wife Patsy both went to St Michael's.

A.J. Felix: That's when Eugene tried to kill Father Gauthier.

Patsy Felix: [laughs] I kinda wanted to turn so I wouldn't be a witness.

Connie: You saw too?

Patsy Felix: Yeah.

Connie: Whoa!

Patsy Felix: We were out in the foyer having a smoke.

A.J. Felix: And then Father Gauthier came and happily said hello.

Connie: What did you—what did you see? What happened?

Patsy Felix: Grabbed him.

A.J. Felix: By the neck, and put him over the railing, four stories high. And they held them there, "You son of a bitch," and stuff like that. And "What the hell are you doing here?" He was gonna kill him, gonna throw him over. And Father Gauthier started to cry.

Connie: Holy cow.

A.J. Felix: He was gonna drop him.

Connie: Really?

A.J. Felix: He was gonna drop him, yeah. I was telling Eugene, "No, Eugene don't. Don't do that." I was telling him, "You will be—you'll be convicted. Don't do that. Don't have to. Now you've got him crying. That's good enough. But tell him to get the hell out of here."

Connie: A.J. says he understands why Eugene attacked Gauthier, because he also took revenge against an Oblate brother from residential school.

A.J. Felix: In fact, I beat up a brother before I left.

Connie: Oh, really?

A.J. Felix: Yeah. Something that happened four or five years previous that I still owed him, or he still owed me. And I paid him back the last day of school.

Connie: So few of those people were ever charged.

A.J. Felix: That's right. They got away with it. They got away with it, but then it's not over. It's not over.

Connie: You mean they could still be charged?

A.J. Felix: Oh, yes.

Connie: A.J. is the third person who I've heard who's confronted an alleged abuser from residential school, not in a courtroom or by going to the police, but on his own.

Connie: Criminal investigations and convictions for residential school abuses are extremely rare, and so when survivors had a chance, they exacted their own form of justice. Like dangling a priest over a balcony, or beating one up on the side of the road. But so many others have never had any chance to see their abusers held accountable, to question them, to make them answer for what they've done. And now, I have the opportunity to go, to put these accusations to an alleged abuser. And to not take this chance when I have it doesn't even feel like an option. I'm going to Alberta to talk to Father Gauthier.

Connie: Next time on Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's.

Connie: Can I—can I show you a picture of my dad to see if you remember him?

Father Gauthier: Maybe I will remember. I don't know.

Connie: Actually, it's my dad and his brothers. My dad is that child there.

Father Gauthier: Oh, I see.

Connie: His name was Howard Cameron. Do you remember him?

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. Additional editorial support from Lydia Polgreen, Reyhan Harmanci and Saidu Tejan-Thomas. Fact-checking by Naomi Barr.

Connie: Original music by Emma Munger, Cris Derksen, Raymond Cameron and Catherine Anderson. 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: Interview of Phil Fontaine by Barbara Frum and CBC News.

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.

Connie: 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.

Connie: 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.