WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The nightmares began last May, said Harvey McLeod, chief of the Upper Nicola Indian Band and survivor of the former Kamloops Indian residential school.
They tormented McLeod for months after 215 presumed unmarked graves were discovered at the school he attended for two years.
Then one night he was visited in his dreams by a young girl who freed him.
“It’s been tough for me and so wonderful at the same time,” McLeod said.
The year since Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had located suspected burial sites in a former apple orchard has been one of the most significant in history. nationwide about residential schools in Canada.
But for survivors of the residential school system, it meant much more: reawakened trauma, catharsis and, for some, a kind of closure.
“There was a little girl next to my right leg, still there,” McLeod recalled of his dream. “I would get up and walk around and she would hold my leg or my hand. It seemed like everywhere I went, this little girl was there.”
The dream ended when the girl walked to a door, waved and left, he said.
“My conclusion was, I’m fine now and she’s fine and she’s going home,” McLeod, 68, said. “I think she was another kid at school who looked after me and I looked after her.”
Percy Casper, 73, spent 10 years at the Kamloops school. He said he was distraught and angry when he heard the announcement.
“Last year I really had to persevere and get back to my ceremonial life and my roots,” said Casper, a member of the Bonaparte Indian Band near Cache Creek. “When I heard about the 215 [unmarked graves], I was like a rubber band. I was maxed out and I was ready to crack.”
The former US Navy and Vietnam War veteran said he found peace after a summer solstice ceremony last June at a place of healing near Cache Creek.
A mother grizzly bear and three cubs watched in the distance as salmon, game and berries were left at the sacred site. They came out of the forest to eat the offerings as he prepared to leave, said Casper, who took their visit as a sign to find strength.
“It was up to me to spiritually revisit myself and say, ‘Hey, you gotta help yourself. You have children. You have grandchildren and you have people,” he said. “So I’m very proud to say I’m guilty of helping my people.”
Professor Nicole Schabus, an expert in Indigenous and environmental law at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, said upset survivors began calling her within hours of news of the alleged graves last May.
“Immediately it took the survivors back to being children again and it caused intergenerational trauma,” she said.
Many told her of dreams of seeing little boys standing alone, Schabus said.
“It took them a long time to realize they were watching each other,” she said, adding that many survivors recognized they were ready to move on.
Mike Arnouse, 79, spent 11 years at the Kamloops school. He said the past year has seen him renew his commitment to live in unity with the land.
“There is a cycle of life and we belong to this cycle,” he said. “Birds know what to do. Animals with four legs know what to do. Fish know what to do, but do we?”
The Adams Lake Indian Band member said the residential schools were built to take Indigenous peoples off the land and impose the Western world on them.
“They’ve been practicing on us for 500 years,” he said. “I always make the joke, ‘I was the smartest in 2nd grade for eight years.’ “
History of old-school abuse
The Kamloops boarding school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
A 4,000-page report released in 2015 by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed severe mistreatment in schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths in institutions.
The report cites records of at least 51 children who died at the Kamloops school between 1914 and 1963. Health officials in 1918 believed children at the school were not being properly fed, leading to malnutrition , notes the report.
Kamloops survivor Garry Gottfriedson, 69, said the past year has been emotionally draining for members of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, who have not been able to grieve privately.
“It was such a public thing,” he said.
Gottfriedson, 69, an internationally renowned poet who provides educational guidance at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops on Secwépemc Nation cultural protocols and practices, said community members were still anxious about the discovery and next steps for the site, including exhumation.
“It’s different from a cemetery because we know the people who are taken to a cemetery and buried there,” he said. “It’s settled. But there are so many unknowns with the 215 bodies. These children are buried in our yard. It’s a constant reminder.”
McLeod said the discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops has forced individuals, institutions and countries to come to terms with their past.
“It’s going to take time, but it’s changed us all in one way or another,” he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has been established to provide support to residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have any information about unmarked graves, children who never came home, or residential school staff and operations? Email your advice to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: [email protected]