On a sweeping expanse of green grass overlooking the Fraser River on a warm late-summer afternoon, Cyril Pierre, a 53-year-old fisherman and a carpenter, pointed out the places he remembered from his childhood.
More than 140 years after Leon Fouquet arrived on the beach below, there is nothing left of the holy city the Oblates first built.
Even the remnants of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School are gone. There is only a covered picnic area, the stone foundations of long-gone buildings, and a cemetery.
On a hill overlooking the field, there is the reconstructed Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, replicated from one of the mission’s most venerable early structures.
Pierre pointed to an overgrown rock wall. This is where the boy’s dormitory was, he said. Over there, that was where the orchard was. That’s where the girls lived. There was a classroom here. This is where the gymnasium used to be.
There are people who come here now, Pierre said, and they don’t know anything about what was here once, but they leave because they feel something wrong. They can hear babies crying.
“That’s how strong it is,” Pierre said. “It’s the hurt that’s still in this place, and I know because my heart was broken here.”
Cyril Pierre turned and looked downriver, towards the distant peak of a mountain he could see from the third floor of the boy’s dormitory when he was a boy.
He would look out the window and hope for a glimpse of the mountain, knowing that just beyond it, on an island in the Fraser, was his home.
“My heart was broken here,” he repeated. “But I’m a survivor.”
What Cyril Pierre survived during his years at St. Mary’s, between 1955 and 1967, is something that is widely considered to be one of the most shameful chapters in Canada’s history—the internment of succeeding generations of aboriginal children in residential schools that were intended to serve the purposes of re-education camps.
As B.C. Indian Commissioner I. W. Powell put it, “the barbarism can only be cured by education.” In its 1887 report, the federal Indian superintendent-general’s office described the purpose of the schools as “the emancipation of the Indian from his inherent superstition and gross ignorance.”
The early architect of Canada’s Indian residential school strategy, Nicholas Flood Davin, was equally blunt.
The whole point was “to take away the simple Indian mythology.”