Alberni School Victim Speaks Out

Lloyd Dolha

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

At least 150 people crowded into a conference room at a downtown Vancouver university campus to hear three survivors recount the gruesome murders they witnessed at a Port Alberni residential school. At the February public forum, the survivors also alleged the complicity of the RCMP in the deaths of school’s students.

In Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre, Harriet Nahanee, Dennis Talio and Harry Wilson, sat with downcast eyes as they prepared themselves to relive the haunting childhood memories of their youth before the gathered throng.

Nahanee, 62, explained that at the age of five, all of the children on her reserve were dragged kicking and screaming onto a RCMP gunboat. They were taken to the Ahousaht residential school. At the age of 10, she was taken to the Port Alberni residential school the same day that 300 other children, from along the coast, were brought. She said that some children immediately hid in corners frightened, while others cried uncontrollably. Children were punished for singing their traditional songs and speaking their own language. They were so poorly fed that they were beaten for stealing vegetables from the root cellar.

In speaking of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the administrators for four years, Nahanee’s voice began to quiver.

“I didn’t bring it to mind until 1984, when my daughter committed suicide. Then I began to look at myself. Why I was addicted to alcohol? Why I wasn’t a good parent?” When Nahanee visited a psychiatrist she told him, “I think the church and the government did this to us deliberately in order to take the land and resources. It was all about keeping us dysfunctional, to keep us dependent.”

Before speaking of the murder she witnessed at the age of 11, Nahanee stopped to compose herself and dry her eyes. “I didn’t consider it a murder because when you’re just a kid, it’s just another painful memory.”

On December 24, 1946, the school administrators told Nahanee she would not go home for the holidays because she didn’t bow her head in prayer. While in the playroom, she heard some shouting. Nahanee followed the sound and went to the bottom of a staircase and climbed them half way. She saw Mr. (Rev. A. E.) Caldwell, and a female supervisor at the top of the stairs. They were arguing about a little girl who was running up and down the stairs.

“Mr. Caldwell was always drunk. You could smell the liquor on his breath all the time.” While batting her eyelashes to hold back the tears, Nahanee continued telling her nightmare.

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

“The worst part of it was the loneliness. When you’re a little kid and you can’t reach out to your mom for a hug – it really hurts. It’s a wound for a lifetime,” said Nahanee.

Wilson of Bella Bella, 45, was sent to the Port Alberni residential school in 1961 at the age of seven, where he was molested by then administrator Arthur Plint for five years.

In 1967, he had discovered a body of a 16-year-old girl, completely naked and covered in blood. He found the janitor who said he would call the RCMP. Wilson does not remember the RCMP arriving at the scene. “The girl’s body disappeared. I can’t remember her name but she was from up north somewhere. There was no investigation. I believe it was a cover-up,” said Wilson.

When Talio, 40, also from Bella Bella, took the podium, he spoke in a voice so low that at times it was difficult to hear what he had to say. Talio spoke of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Arthur Plint between the years 1962-1967. In 1965, Talio had discovered the remains of a girl between the ages of seven to nine, who had been sexually assaulted. He alleged that RCMP officials had warned him to keep his mouth shut.

At one point, his voice rising to a quivering pitch, he asked the audience, “Have any of you ever been beaten with a horse’s harness whip? Sometimes I can still hear those screams from young girls, even the boys, who Mr. Plint sexually assaulted. During those years at school I couldn’t help; but I still can’t get those screams out of my head,” said Talio.

Former United Church minister Kevin Annett was fired and de-listed by the church after he unearthed evidence of murders at the Port Alberni residential school.

“I had to lose my job. I had to lose my marriage and my children in order to try to understand what we did,” said Annett, who partook in the forum.

The United Church schools in Port Alberni and Ahousaht were situated on some of the richest resources in the area. “In Ahousaht, there are some of the oldest Red Cedar stands, and in Port Alberni, at the mouth of Somass (river), is a major salmon fishing ground,” said Annett.

Annett quoted a letter from a veteran bureaucrat, DIA superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott. In part, it stated: “The residential schools cannot be located to close to the Indian reserves because then the children will stay on their own land, and as you know, we must open this land up for exploitation.”

The three survivors are involved in Canada’s first civil lawsuit, held in Nanaimo, on Indian residential school abuse. Their case will decide whether the federal government and the United Church should be held vicariously liable (financially accountable) for abuses committed by school staff. If the church and government art found liable, the trial will move into its second phase of deciding the amount of money that will be awarded to the plaintiffs. Hundreds of similar lawsuits are pending across Canada on the court’s decision.

For the second time since his de-listing hearing, Annett has requested the Attorney General to begin an investigation into the proceedings. In a letter to Attorney General Dosanjh, dated March 9, 1998, Annett wrote:

“Since the maintenance of human rights in B.C. is within your portfolio…I fail to see why you are unable to investigate what I have experienced to be a gross violation of my legal and human rights…I am quite concerned that your refusal to examine my case is a consequence of the political influence of the United Church of Canada within the NDP government in the form of such key actors as Rev. John Cashore and Tim Stephenson.”

Annett was fired without cause or review in January 1995, from his Port Alberni church and was subsequently expelled from the ministry after a lengthy and expensive trial without ever being charged or given cause for his removal.

Annett plans to take his case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission if Dosanjh refuses to investigate. Annett has also filed a legal writ of notice prior to his impending lawsuit against the United Church.