WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Standing on the site of the former Fort Alexander residential school, survivor Alma Mann Scott says her experiences there still haunt her.
“For an adult to do those things to a child, here I am at 60 still trying to fix the damage,” she said Friday.
News that Manitoba RCMP have charged a retired Catholic priest for allegations of abuse at the residential school brought up a range of emotions for school survivors like Scott, who was forced to attend Fort Alexander when she was just five years old.
“It’s a very emotional time because all the memories from over 50 years ago are just fresh today,” she said.
“But I feel a sense of strength, too, from knowing that someone is being held accountable for these crimes committed upon children that should never have happened.”
Police arrested retired Father Arthur Masse, 92, on Thursday in connection with the sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl who was a student at the Fort Alexander school, on the territory of Sagkeeng First Nation northeast of Winnipeg.
The alleged assault occurred between 1968 and 1970, police said Friday.
The arrest follows a decade-long investigation, where 75 witness and victim statements were obtained.
The Fort Alexander school, which closed in 1970, had a reputation for abuse. Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation and harsh discipline.
Marilyn Courchene says she knew Father Masse through the day school at Fort Alexander, and says he made her feel uncomfortable.
She says she wanted to confront him but never had the opportunity to.
“[I wanted] to ask him, ‘Did you know that this bothered me? Did you know how I felt as a girl, as a young child?'”
Courchene said she wasn’t interviewed by RCMP as part of the investigation that led to Masse’s arrest, but says she plans on calling police now.
She said she’s glad someone is being held accountable for the suffering inflicted on students who went there.
“These churches were meant to protect us, and teach us, but they didn’t. They did the opposite,” she said.
“A lot of people came out of there showing no love, no emotional compassion for one another. They were just like statues walking around.”
Over their more than 100-year history, it’s estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools.
Though it’s difficult to say exactly how many residential schools operated during that span, 139 have been officially identified, most of which were run by the Catholic Church.
More accountability needed
For some, any justice survivors receive from Masse’s arrest won’t heal the harm that continues to inflict the community.
Calvin Alexander’s parents both went to the Fort Alexander residential school. He says the abuse and trauma they suffered there was passed on to their kids.
Before his father died several years ago, Alexander says he remembers hearing him recount his experiences in a lawyer’s office.
“My life just flashed before my eyes,” he said.
“The things that … [my father] did to us or me, it was because of what they did to him.”
He says he’s glad at least one person has now been charged, but would like to see others who worked at residential schools face justice.
“Look at how much we’re suffering. Look at how much we lost. We can’t even work with our kids right because of all the abuse and mental trauma.”
Scott says she hopes the charge can help survivors begin to heal.
“They took things away from us, but we can take them back.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.