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‘The damage is done’: B.C. residential school survivor says Trudeau visit fixes nothing

Click to play video: 'B.C. residential school survivor says Trudeau’s visit will not help him heal' B.C. residential school survivor says Trudeau’s visit will not help him heal
Speaking ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to the Williams Lake First Nation and the site of the former St. Joseph's Mission residential school, survivor Frank Robbins said nothing Trudeau says or does will help him heal from the trauma he still suffers from his years at the school when he was a young child – Mar 30, 2022

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

A survivor of a residential school in Williams Lake, B.C., says a visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not help him heal from the trauma he still suffers — even if he receives an apology.

Frank Robbins attended the St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in the early 1960s. His father was also a survivor.

Now, Robbins has returned to the site of the former school to witness Trudeau’s visit, which comes two months after the Williams Lake First Nation announced it had found 93 “reflections” indicating unmarked graves of children on the grounds. But he says the visit brings little comfort.

“An apology would mean nothing to me,” he told Global News Wednesday. “The damage is done and you can never fix what happened, you know?

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“He’ll never know the pain and hurt that we went through. Maybe (we can) let him know the things that happened to us … and (make sure) it never happens again.”

Read more: Trudeau visits with B.C. residential school survivors, announces additional funding

Robbins attended St. Joseph’s Mission for over two years, entering the residential school shortly before he turned six years old.

He remembers his father picking him up to take him away from the school in 1962, when the younger Robbins was just turning eight.

“He didn’t want me there because he was one of the survivors,” he said. “He went through a lot of trauma over there. And he knew that I shouldn’t be there.”

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981 and has since been demolished. An additional property, the Onward Ranch, was added in 1964 to support the operational needs of the school. The sites were predominantly run by Roman Catholic missionaries.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one student died of exposure after trying to escape St. Joseph’s in 1902. Another died and eight others became ill after eating poisonous water hemlock, which parents believed was a response to discipline at the school.

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Click to play video: 'Justin Trudeau to visit Williams Lake First Nation, after 93 possible burial sites found at former residential school site' Justin Trudeau to visit Williams Lake First Nation, after 93 possible burial sites found at former residential school site
Justin Trudeau to visit Williams Lake First Nation, after 93 possible burial sites found at former residential school site – Mar 28, 2022

Robbins says he witnessed — and experienced — “all kinds” of physical and sexual abuse during his years at the school, where cruel punishments were sparked by even minor offences.

“I remember we were late for class one day and Sister Andrew Mary — I’ll never forget that name because of the pain she put us through — she would strap us for nothing then,” he remembered.

“There were three of us waiting to be strapped, and before (she) got to me, I was already crying. I knew it was coming. I grabbed onto the strap and I hung on. I’m only little, five or six years old.

“(The nun) went and called the brothers, two brothers, two big men. They came and took me across the hallway, took my pants down and hit me with a big, long stick. Twice. Things like that happened.”

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He says his father, in addition to physical abuse, also “went through hunger and pain.”

“He didn’t do much schooling when he was over there,” he said. “He did a lot of work, looking after this and that. But we were supposed to be … going to school.

“In my times over there, I really didn’t learn anything. I learned pain. I learned to hurt.”

Read more: 93 possible burial sites found in initial search at former B.C. residential school site

More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended Canada’s 139 residential schools, described by some as institutions of assimilation. Their purpose, writes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was to “kill the Indian in the child.”

Trudeau on Wednesday was welcomed by elders from the Williams Lake First Nation and residential school survivors. He is set to visit the site where the “reflections” were discovered.

Decades after his experience at St. Joseph’s, Robbins says he still hasn’t healed. Talking about it ahead of the welcome ceremony for Trudeau, he says he only feels anger.

“I guess the goal is to move on from the trauma and the hurt that we’ve been through, and hopefully work our way to get over it,” he said.

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“But I’ll never get over it. I’ll never forget it.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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