Warning: Details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is strongly advised.
A residential school survivor from Haida Gwaii, B.C., is calling for a class-action lawsuit against the Catholic Church to reveal the names of the children who died at the schools.
Sphenia Jones went to the Edmonton Residential School where she said she was given a different name, Pauline, and was forced to stop speaking her language.
She was 11 years old when she attended the school and was put on a train from British Columbia where she said it stopped multiple times to pick up other children from communities along the route.
“There was a whole bunch of kids in there. They were stopping and picking up a bunch of kids,” she said. “Some of them died on the way and they just threw them off the train.”
“Very scary,” she added. “Mainly because there were so many little kids that were younger than me there. Babies. That’s what I couldn’t get over.”
Jones said when she arrived at the school, her hair was cut short and she was put to work in the infirmary.
“When I was working in the infirmary, I found this little girl — her name was Marjorie Victoria Stewart — and her head was bashed in, in the back. I brought breakfast up for her and I was calling her name and she wouldn’t move so I put the tray down. I remember putting the tray down and hugging her, trying to wake her up, shaking her. There was blood all over the pillow and I got scared so I went running down to talk to the principal about it and I told him to go to the infirmary.”
Jones said she found out one of the supervisors had hit the little girl in the head with a two-by-four because she had been running in the hallway.
“They strapped me,” Jones said when she told Stewart’s sisters what happened. “They told me never ever ever tell what I saw.”
“I don’t know if they ever sent her home or buried her there. I never found out what happened with that.”
When the Red Deer Industrial School, run by the Methodist Church, closed its doors in 1919, they reopened five years later in Edmonton.
According to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, by 1930 the Edmonton Residential School had more than 200 residents.
During the 1950s, when Jones attended the school, many students came from Northwest Terrorities and Yukon, eventually opening up to more students from United Church schools in B.C.
The federal government took over the administration of the school in 1967 and it was closed in 1968.
Jones, now 77 years old, said when one of the supervisors caught her speaking her own language, three of her fingernails were ripped out.
“That’s why I have such a hard time learning other languages right now,” she told Global News. “I’m still having a hard time trying to deal with those feelings.”
Support from her family has helped her immensely, Jones explained, but her memories of those days at the school are still very hard for her to process.
“I have so many beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I have six beautiful children. I am quite blessed.”
She said she does not talk much with her family about her time at the school but she wants to see more resources dedicated to finding and identifying those who lost their lives and were buried in unmarked graves.
“They always told us and said ‘no one’s going to believe you,'” Jones added. “They’d slap us in the head and say ‘no one’s going to believe you.'”
“Now they’re going to have to believe us.”
The B.C. First Nation that first confirmed the discovery of unmarked children’s graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops is renewing its call for an apology from the Pope, following the discovery of more gravesites in Saskatchewan.
In a statement, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief and council offered their support to the Cowessess Nation, saying the discovery mirrored the “horrific truth” revealed by the discovery of 215 children’s remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Jones posted a video on Facebook recently talking about the need for the class-action suit across Canada to find the survivors of the residential school system.
“Everyone had a number,” she said. “That’s all they called us, how were they going to remember our names? All of our clothing had a number sewn onto it.”
Jones was known by the number 702.
When she found out later in life that she was from the Haida Nation she said it filled her heart with joy and enabled her to dance and sing once more.
It’s believed only about 12 people still speak the Haida language fluently but the Nation is working to change that by opening up language schools for young students.
Jones said the discovery of the unmarked graves is “just the beginning” and what Canada does next to help Indigenous People is going to be so important.
“I hope it will be a good eye-opener, instead of (people) saying ‘get over it.’ It’s not just the bodies that have been found now, it’s been hundreds of years that we’ve been treated this way,” she added. “It would be great if the world would start opening up their eyes, their ears and their hearts … that they would be able to admit that they did wrong.”
“It would be great that now this is out in the open, (people) would say ‘this is how we can help.'”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.