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Survivors of Kamloops Indian Residential School share their stories

Mona Jules, Leona Thomas and Evelyn Camille all attended the school — and all have tales of abuse.

Mona Jules recalls the Kamloops Indian Residential School sounding like a beehive when she arrived at the age of six in the late 1940s.

Being fluent in her own Indigenous language, Jules said she couldn’t understand anyone.

“The buzzing and the noise. I just looked form face to face. I couldn’t understand anything,” she said.

Leona Thomas remembers her first day, entering that school at the age of six in 1958, and being pried from her brother’s back and split up.

On Thursday, July 15, the two women, along with fellow Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Evelyn Camille, spoke of their traumatic experiences while attending the school. They spoke at press conference at which Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc shared more details of the ground-penetrating radar survey in May that found signs of 200 probable burial sites of children who attended the former school. 

Camille said she would like to see the site where the probable graves lie remain undisturbed.

“Yes, there may have to be some studies done, but what good are those studies going to do for us? For an individual? For me?” Camille said.

Camille spent 10 years at the residential school, though from what ages she entered she cannot recall.

She said students did many chores, such as cooking and cleaning and had to steal much of their food to survive.

“I don’t want to call them schools, because I didn’t learn anything there,” Camille said, noting that when she took her college entrance exam, she was a Grade 4 education level.

Evelyn Camille
Evelyn Camille spent 10 years at the residential school, though from what ages she entered she cannot recall. - Michael Potestio/LJI

She said it’s hard to talk about the abuse inflected on her at the residential school.

“I didn’t even talk about the abuse in residential schools with my children and today they are shocked to hear all that is happening, especially the finding of the babies,” Camille said, noting residential school survivors tried in the past to explain to the powers that be that many students were missing.

Camille said her children asked why she never told them of the abuse, to which she explained Thursday that she couldn’t bring herself to share her sorrows with them, not wanting them to know what happened to her.

She said residential school taught her to be ashamed of her Indigenous identity.

“The residential schools were specifically built to take the Indian out of us. To take away our language, culture and traditions,” she said. “But it did not work.”

She said it took many years for her to push back those abuses and learn her identity.

Camille said she sent her students to the catholic St. Ann’s Academy because it had the highest academic standards at the time and she wanted the best for her children. She lauded the fact that many Indigenous communities now have their own schools teaching kids their Indigenous way of life, including the Sk’elep School of Excellence at Tk’emlúps.

She said First Nations had strong communities that helped each other, but noted residential schools took that away, breaking up families.

“Broken-up families still happen today with child and family services. We have to end that system and be responsible for our own children in our own communities. That is how it was and that is how it should be,” Camille said.

Thomas said she was taken from a loving home and placed in the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

She initially turned down the request to speak at Thursday’s press conference, but changed her mind because she is aware of how important it is that younger generations know what happened.

Thomas was at the school full-time 1958 to 1963, then attended day school from 1964 to 1967.

She said she went to a cold environment overseen by people who didn’t respect who she and her fellow students were.

“That could not comfort a six-year-old who was crying, wanting to go home or wanting to be with her brother who she was not allowed to be with,” Thomas said.

She said she was put in a dancing group that learned all ethnic dances except her own.

“I knew how to Irish jig,” she said. “I know how to do the Mexican hat dances.”

Thomas said through the learning process, her abuse was amplified, and that she received beatings for speaking her Indigenous language.

She credits her late aunt for teaching her Secwépemc songs and dances, which she passed on to her granddaughters.

Leona Thomas
Leona Thomas initially turned down the request to speak at Thursday’s press conference, but changed her mind because she is aware of how important it is that younger generations know what happened. - Michael Potestio/LJI

Jules said she has spent years trying to revive what the Kamloops Indian Residential School tried to snuff out in her. At the school, she said, students didn’t have a voice.

“You could scream and cry and beg and there was no one there to rescue you,” Jules said. “We were strapped and beaten.”

After hearing about the discovery of the 200 probable graves, she wonders what could have happened to her.

Jules said her 13-year-old sister died at the school and her parents were told after the fact that she had become sick and passed away.

“They wanted to know why wasn’t she taken to a doctor, to a hospital. It was right across the bridge and there were no answers,” Jules recalled, noting her father ended up beating up the principal in anger.

Camille said she often wonders what truth and reconciliation really means.

“We have tried to tell them what happened to us. They threw a few silver coins to us. Did that make me feel better? No,” she said, noting many residential school survivors who couldn’t heal themselves have died due to alcohol abuse.

Thomas challenged everyone to educate themselves on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action and to push governmental leaders in the right direction on the issue.

Tk’emlúps Kúkpi7 (Chief) Roseanne Casimir said the residential school system has been referred to as a historic, dark chapter in Canadian history, but “Indigenous people are very much alive with the repercussions they’re living with today.”

“We are here today because Indian residential school survivors and inter-generational survivors were unrelenting in carrying those painful truths about missing children forward,” Casimir said.