Leaning on his cane, Ray Tony Charlie carefully walked across a Chemainus beach to look out at the site of the former Kuper Island Residential School.
It’s a place he sadly knows all too well.
The now 71-year-old suffered horrific sexual abuse there by a Catholic priest after he was first sent there as a teenager.
Located on Penelakut Island across the water from Chemainus, Kuper Island Industrial Residential School opened in 1889 and was known as “Canada’s Alcatraz” due to its location on an island, but largely because it was rife with unimaginable abuse.
Indigenous children were trapped on the island and forced to endure horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff.
A total of 121 children are known to have died at the school, with some having drowned while attempting to escape the island. In 1975, the residential school finally closed, but the memories continue to haunt survivors.
“We still live with the pain and challenges every day,” said Charlie, a member of the Penelakut First Nation.
In May, Charlie published ‘In the Shadow of the Red Brick Building,‘ which details what happened in the residential school. He also shares his memories on Tik Tok.
“I was whipped, slapped, punched, beat up,” Charlie recounts in one TikTok post.
His posts have received over 150,000 views and counting, as he shares with children and grandchildren what their surviving loved ones are still too traumatized to talk about.
“There are over 150,000 survivors I am only one of them,” said Charlie.”It’s important to learn how to live with it and move on in a healthy way.”
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
On Monday, Pope Francis apologized in Alberta for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” policy of Indigenous residential schools.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” he said in a speech given near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, on lands of four Cree nations south of Edmonton.
Francis also expressed sorrow over the schools’ systemic marginalization, denigration and suppression of Indigenous people, languages and culture; the “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” children suffered after being taken from their homes at a young age; and the “indelibly” altered family relationships that resulted.
“I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
Charlie, however, is skeptical of what the Pope’s visit to Edmonton will accomplish. He said he fears for the survivors who are attending and hoping for closure.
“I hope he doesn’t let them down. It’s important that we have something to build on because the church has got to go a long way and build a relationship with our First Nations people,” said Charlie.
Songhees Nation elected councillor Norman Garry Sam agrees and is one of many concerned that the Pope’s visit may trigger survivors.
“We are watching and listening but ultimately we are watching out for our people,” said Sam.
With files from the Associated Press
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can call the 24/7 National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866 925-4419.