Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Clayton Peters, 64, who was forced into the school for 10 years, sits on the lawn at the former school, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. Peters’ parents and his brothers were also forced into the facility. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Clayton Peters, 64, who was forced into the school for 10 years, sits on the lawn at the former school, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. Peters’ parents and his brothers were also forced into the facility. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Survivor of B.C. residential school breaking silence and calling for action

‘It was the most horrible pain in the world to be a native, to be an Indian back then’

Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be triggering to readers.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866) 925-4419. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society’s 24-hour line is available at 1-800-588-8717.

*****

News of the remains of 215 children being discovered at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia jolted Clayton Peters, whose seven years of torment there have been mostly encased in silence around fears of soap and strappings, a cold dark room and dreams of running away.

“I’m finally telling somebody about it, all the stuff I went through in there. Like it’s out there, it’s not a secret,” he said. “It was the most horrible pain in the world to be a native, to be an Indian back then.”

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was Canada’s largest such facility operated by the Roman Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969 before the federal government took it over as a day school until 1978, when it was closed.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said the remains of the children, some believed to be as young as three, were confirmed with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

Peters and his brothers were forcibly taken to the school in 1967. He remembers thinking that kids who’d suddenly disappeared from there were the lucky ones because they’d managed to escape, after his unsuccessful attempt that led to harsh consequences.

“I always thought they ran away like I did, that they made it, that they were free,” he said crying.

Now, he thinks some of the children he knew may be buried at the site of a former apple orchard where students were forbidden to go but could pray nearby.

Peters and his three brothers — JP, 12; Dale, 9; and eight-year-old Cordell — were taken to the residential school after a man in a green station wagon belonging to the then-federal Department of National Health and Welfare showed up at their house on a sunny day, he said.

Pete Peters knew his boys would end up at the residential school where both he and his wife, Nancy, had spent years as children, and he had to protect them, his then-10-year-old son remembered.

When a standoff with police had his gun-toting dad being hauled off to jail, young Peters took the chance to bolt. But he was captured in a field when police returned later so he and his brothers could be transported to the school.

At the residential school, he soon learned all siblings were kept on separate floors, Peters said, adding he saw one of his brothers, JP, about five years later and they decided to run away, only to be caught and beaten by a priest.

“He said to me, ‘If you ever try running again, Mr. Peters, we will take you far away and they’ll never find you. Do you want to run?’ I said, ‘I won’t run.’”

Being beaten and molested was part of the ongoing abuse children suffered at the school, he said.

“After they strap you and strap you, who are you going to cry to?” he said. “You learn to hate, to hold hate in you.”

Children who spoke their own language were disciplined, Peters said.

“They would stick bars of soap in their mouth and make them eat it.”

Children were also forced to scrub themselves with soap containing lye, which burned their skin, “so they could take the brown off of them,” he said.

“They beat me up so many times for not using it, but I wouldn’t use it,” he said. “I quit showering because they just wanted to hurt you, that’s all.”

Children were not given medicine when they were sick but confined to a dark room alone, Peters said of the place that was also used as a form of punishment.

“I was in there so many times in that dark room, for sometimes doing nothing, just for looking at them,” he said of staff. “You’re supposed to look down as soon as they look at you. Your eyes have to hit the floor.”

At age 17, Peters was kicked out for misbehaving, but his brothers would not leave until later.

The emotional toll of his experience had him drinking excessively, the same as his parents, who were both found dead of alcohol poisoning on the same day 34 years ago, Peters said.

“I was sad all my life. When I left that school, I fought everybody. I fought every white man that bumped into me. I was so angry,” he said.

Peters and his wife, Sherry Peters, married in 1983 and have a 34-year-old daughter and four grandchildren he is extremely protective of.

He said he has come to understand why his mom and dad didn’t know how to parent, and he has tried so hard to do better.

“I’m still learning how to cope with anger, cope with how to live with people, cope with how to live with myself.”

Peters stopped drinking and got a job as a wastewater operator at two treatment plants in the Vancouver area before the family returned to Kamloops in 2010.

He said it’s time the Roman Catholic Church issued a formal apology for the suffering endured by generations of First Nations families.

“I just want them to say they’re sorry about what happened in there,” he said.

Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement Monday the news of the recent discovery is “shocking.”

“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future.”

Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society in British Columbia, said the organization has been inundated with people being retraumatized after learning about the children’s remains.

“Many are making connections and saying, ‘Oh, now that makes sense.’ They’re making sense of things that were happening at the school but they couldn’t explain as a child,” she said.

Survivors are also feeling validated that they weren’t imagining their experiences, some that were whispered among them for years because “who’s going to believe you? You’re just a dumb little Indian,” White said.

While some survivors shared the abuse they endured at hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which filed its report to the federal government in 2015, too many of the calls to action still haven’t been acted on for the sake of those carrying so much grief, she added.

— By Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

RELATED: U.N. seeks full probe into death of Indigenous students at residential schools

RELATED: Time to account for all child deaths at residential schools: Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

residential schools

Just Posted

Rob Kernachan editorial cartoon.
Editorial cartoonist focuses on Orange Shirt Day

Orange Shirt Day is the feature of Rob Kernachan’s contribution this week.… Continue reading

The grads of 2021 at Chemainus Secondary School will be resilient based on their experiences through COVID. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Making the most of grad events

Class of 2021 will carry resilience with them throughout their years based on COVID experience

COVID-19 has made the 2020-21 school year at Chemainus Secondary School interesting and challenging for graduates. (File photo by Don Bodger)
Chemainus Secondary School 2021 graduates

Here’s the young men and women who are embarking on life’s next journey

Girls just wanna have fun. From left: Danielle Dela Cruz, Melanie Cheng, Hanna Starkie, Camille Storteboom, Rebecca Rhode, Sian Diewert and Brianne Pamminger at the Crofton seawalk. (Photo by Alana Starkie)
Prom night brings some semblance of normalcy for 2021 Chemainus grads

Being together at least provides class members with some comfort

Tom Millard served his community well for so many years with the Chemainus Fire Department. (Photo submitted)
Millard dedicated himself to community service

Long-time Chemainus Fire Department member and chief remembered for his commitment

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

Most Read