A residential school in Manitoba known for harsh discipline and fatal runaway attempts has been the focus of a large-scale, years-long investigation into sexual abuse allegations.
Mounties said Tuesday that officers with the major crime unit began looking into the Fort Alexander Residential School, northeast of Winnipeg, in 2010 and a criminal investigation began the following year.
The school was opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, which later became the Sagkeeng First Nation. It ran for 66 years until 1970.
Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson said he was a band councillor when the probe started. He was only informed of the investigation by RCMP last week, he said.
Henderson said he is waiting to see what legal steps may be taken before he speaks more about the allegations.
"We ask that the trauma our community has experienced and continues to live every day is respected and that those affected are afforded their privacy at this time," he said.
Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, reserved comment so as not to prejudice the investigation.
"We expect it to be a thorough investigation and, at the end, for those guilty of horrendous crimes against children to be brought to justice using the full extent of the law," Grand Chief Jerry Daniels with the Southern Chiefs Organization said in a statement.
RCMP provided few details on the allegations, but did say the investigation has involved reviewing archived records of the school, including student and employee lists. Officers have also interviewed more than 700 people across North America.
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Mounties said they’ve collected 75 statements from witnesses and alleged victims and are waiting on advice from the province's Crown prosecutors regarding charges. None have been laid so far.
It's the only investigation into residential schools currently underway in Manitoba, they said.
Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said his thoughts are with the community. As attorney general, Friesen said he could not comment on the case itself “except to say we have faith in this process."
"This is a very significant investigation by RCMP."
The Catholic Church operated the Fort Alexander school through the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Ken Thorson with the Oblates said the group has not been contacted by police about the investigation. He said it would fully co-operate if that were to change.
The Oblates operated 48 schools across the country, including the Marieval Indian Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Unmarked graves were located at both sites in recent months.
Sagkeeng First Nation recently began a search near the Fort Alexander school using ground-penetrating radar and drones to detect any evidence of graves.
There are 17 residential school grounds and 114 day school sites in Manitoba.
The Fort Alexander school had a reputation for abuse. Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation and harsh discipline.
The commission's final report said Phil Fontaine, former grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and a past national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, put experiences at residential schools on the national agenda in 1990 when he disclosed his own sexual abuse at the Fort Alexander school.
"It took the revelation of the experiences of residential school survivors to crystallize the reality that Canada was not the nation we wished it to be," Fontaine wrote in the forward for a book about the schools.
In the commission's final report, survivor Victoria McIntosh said life at the school taught her not to trust anyone.
"You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And, yeah, you learn to shut down."
Children from nearly two dozen First Nations attended the school for about 10 months of the year. McIntosh told the commission the school reminded her of a "prison yard" that trained children to put up their guard and respond with violence. Crying was a sign of being weak, she said.
In 1928, two boys drowned after they attempted to run away from the school using a boat. Muriel Morrisseau told the commission that she ran away from Fort Alexander almost every year she attended.
"I remember running away again trying to cross the river and it started freezing up. We all got scared. We had to come back again with a tail under our legs," she told the commission.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.