Warning: The following story contains details about residential schools some readers may find distressing.
Only once in their 66 years of marriage did Cecilia Louis talk about being a student at the Kamloops Indian Residential School with her husband Charlie.
All she told him was that she was taken from her family near Merritt at 18 months old in 1945 and placed in the school where she would remain for another 11 years.
The Louises had four kids together. The eldest two, Annette and Beverly, both died accidentally, neither reaching the age of two. The youngest kids, Leo and Rebecca, never asked their mom about the residential school. Charlie never asked. And Cecilia never talked about it.
On their drives from their Westside Road home through Kamloops, where you can see the school in the distance to the north across the South Thompson River, Cecilia never looked in that direction, recalled Charlie. Not once.
“She grew up without her parents coming to see them (Cecilia’s sister Jeanette was also at the residential school). She lived with all that,” said Charlie, 82, of his bride who died three years ago.
Cecilia may not have verbally spoken about life at the residential school, but she spoke volumes with a pen.
She testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings at the school in 2013, dredging up memories that led to a couple of nervous breakdowns. From an eight-page questionnaire Cecilia filled out for the hearings – a document kept by the family – we learn she was strapped, punched and verbally abused. She did a lot of dancing in shoes that were two sizes too small.
The only one of 16 yes-and-no questions over two pages Louis answered in the negative was if she had difficulty obtaining or maintain employment since leaving the school.
Did she lose contact with family members as a result of attending the residential school? Did she suffer low self-esteem or self-worth? Loss of identity? Did she have difficulty in obtaining or maintaining relationships with the opposite sex; being a parent to her children; trusting people; difficulty with authority figures; expressing emotions; Was the education at the school inadequate? Did she have anger management problems? Had she ever been depressed? Ever been ashamed or embarrassed to be First Nations?
Louis answered the yes box with a black X. To every question.
She also answered in the affirmative that she felt she had lost the knowledge of her Indigenous language, religion, culture, heritage and/or spirituality as a result of the residential school.
Her sister Jeannette wrote a four-page statement about her time at the school, calling it “very traumatic.”
“All that I remember is living and staying in this institution all year round, working, being hungry, cold, lonely, emotional abuse; constant fear of being hit for doing something wrong in their eyes and not being told what I did wrong or having it explained to me what the problem was.
“I saw a lot of abuse to other students; the shame, the humiliation and anger.”
Cecilia Louis received counselling most of her adult life in regards to the abuse she suffered and when she had flashbacks.
Charlie and Cecilia met in Enderby after Cecilia was out of the residential school. Charlie had grown up on Six Mile Creek and attended school on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve until Grade 3.
Charlie worked for many years as a logger and was a rodeo cowboy specializing in riding bucking horses, rewarded with a lifetime membership to the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. Cecilia spent 37 years as a bookkeeper for the Round Lake Treatment Centre in Spallumcheen and was just a couple of credits away from becoming a fully certified chartered accountant when she died.
Charlie Louis received a phone call Thursday, May 27, from his only surviving child Leo (Rebecca died after an illness in 2020), who had heard on the news the remains of 215 children were discovered in an unmarked grave on the Kamloops Residential School grounds.
The news, he said, would have sent his wife into another breakdown.
Asked about what he’d like to see happen next, aside from an apology from the Pope, Charlie didn’t mince words.
“Every Catholic church on every reserve should be burned down.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering from trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The 24-7 hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.