WARNING: This story contains details that readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
It’s not easy for Jack Kruger to dredge up memories from his residential school years but he does it for the many others who didn’t live long enough to do the same.
“They’d want us to remind everybody what happened and why we need to talk, why we need to teach people in school and in our communities that something happened,” Kruger, a member of the Penticton Indian Band, said.
“I am doing this for those who can’t talk.”
In 1956, Kruger was forced onto a train to Cranbrook by the police and members of the clergy. Once he and the other children arrived, they were loaded onto a cow truck and driven to the St. Eugene Residential School, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until 1970.
Jack was six years old when he made that life-changing journey.
“There was a whole bunch of us children there. Many were crying because they didn’t want to leave home,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was told I was going for a little ride and little did I know what it was all about.”
Kruger stayed at the school until he was in Grade 8 and the intervening years offered a nightmarish array of memories he’s had decades to sort through.
“I remember watching a priest raping the kids.… I remember them slapping kids,” he said. “I’ve seen the priest and heard him telling two boys, ‘Go ahead and throw him in there.’ What he was talking to the two boys about was throwing that young boy that passed away into the furnace, the fire.”
In June, ground-penetrating radar was used to search a site close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission School and 182 graves were found.
At the time, it was unclear whether the remains were of children. That discovery, however, followed the Cowessess First Nation also using ground-penetrating radar to detect 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School east of Regina, and the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
“(The boy) is not one of the ones you’ll find buried,” Kruger said. “That child burnt up and is forever gone.”
Kruger is a survivor but it’s a title that took a heavy emotional toll.
“I guess you could say (those who suffered) sexual abuse, we were better off,” he said.
“At least you’re alive, even though you live with the trauma the rest of your life. The trauma of having your friend hang himself is probably the one that hurt me the most.”
So did the messaging that he was less than other children growing up in Canada.
“They destroyed my belief that I was anything,” he said.
“I didn’t think I was better than a dirty little Indian who didn’t know (anything). I always believed I was dumb so I never did go to school after I came back, I just went to Grade 8 and I lost any will to go to school.”
The province this summer announced it would dedicate $12 million to support First Nations doing investigative work at former residential institutions and for programs to help community members experiencing trauma.
It is working with a number of nations that have requested assistance in determining the next steps for searching the sites, including the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc in Kamloops and the Daylu Dena Council in Lower Post.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.