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Rights + Justice

'She Was Ready to Testify'

Indigenous day school survivors who died before they got a chance to testify were remembered as a human rights tribunal gets underway in Burns Lake.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 4 May 2023The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

[Editor’s note: This article contains stories about trauma and abuse. It may be triggering to some readers.]

As a child attending Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, Cathy Woodgate did not have the physical strength of her classmates. But she had a strength of character that endured throughout her life, a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal heard Monday.

In an emotional introduction that launched testimony examining the RCMP’s investigation into the historic abuse of Indigenous children at two northern B.C. schools, Cathy’s daughter, Katrina Woodgate, described her mother’s lifelong fight for justice.

When she attended Immaculata in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cathy was the slowest in her class. It made her the target of abuse by her physical education teacher, Katrina said. The former coach would taunt Cathy, pulling her hair and hitting her with basketballs and sticks, the tribunal heard.

Cathy would later be diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

“The traumatic incidents of abuse impacted her self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, fear and anxiety for the rest of her life,” Katrina said. “Despite all her health issues, she was strong and courageous and continued to seek justice for herself and other survivors of [A.B.’s] abuse. She told her kids, no matter how bad her health is, she was ready to testify.”

But Cathy Woodgate never got that chance.

In September 2021, the degenerative muscle disorder took her life before she was able to share her story with the tribunal examining the RCMP’s investigation into the former coach, whose identity is now protected by a confidentiality order and anonymized as A.B.

After a series of delays, Cathy Woodgate et al. v. RCMP got underway at Ts’il Kaz Koh Gathering Place in Burns Lake this week. While its lead complainant did not have the chance to testify, her children were there to seek justice for their mother and other survivors of abuse at Immaculata, Katrina said.

Three women, all with dark hair and wearing glasses, lean against a low wall with their arms around each other under a blue sky.
From left, Chelsea Hiebert, Katelyn Woodgate and Katrina Woodgate, the daughters of lead complainant Cathy Woodgate, stand outside Ts'il Kaz Koh Gathering Place after speaking at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings currently underway in Burns Lake. Cathy Woodgate was one of three complainants who died before she had the chance to testify before the tribunal. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

It was in 2016 that six members of the Lake Babine Nation brought allegations of an improper and incomplete RCMP investigation into alleged abuses at Immaculata and Prince George College to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission investigated and referred the complaint to the tribunal for inquiry in 2020. Although hearings were initially scheduled to begin January 2022, they were delayed by a series of motions, including A.B.’s request for anonymity.

Over the last two years, three of six complainants and one witness have died.

As the hearing got underway Monday, lawyer Karen Bellehumeur recognized the complainants who never got the chance to tell their stories — Cathy Woodgate, Ann Tom and Emma Williams.

“These three First Nations women were complainants that wished to be heard on the case that we’re about to commence,” Bellehumeur said in her opening statement. “They courageously told their stories of abuse and put their effort into raising before the tribunal the issue of discrimination in police investigations.”

The tribunal heard Monday that one of A.B.’s accusers took her story to the RCMP in July 2012. According to Whitney Dunn, a lawyer with Canada’s Department of Justice who is representing the RCMP, three police officers conducted an 18-month investigation, which included interviewing 37 people.

They heard stories of abuse, Dunn said in his opening statement. They heard that students were strapped, hit, called names and punished for speaking their native Carrier language. But the officers ultimately concluded that there weren’t sufficient grounds to recommend charges to Crown prosecutors.

“That the investigation did not end with the conclusion that perhaps the complainants would wish does not mean that there was discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act,” Dunn said.

But the complainants allege they were discriminated against and denied access to police services based on their ethnicity, contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act. They say investigating officers didn’t take into account, or provide accommodations for, the longstanding fear and mistrust of the RCMP in Indigenous communities, which made witnesses hesitant to come forward.

Bellehumeur called the case “but one example of the ongoing inequality that many Indigenous communities experience in accessing justice,” adding that it reveals the systemic nature of discrimination within policing.

Instead, the day-school survivors turned to a journalist, she said.

Laura Robinson’s article in the Georgia Straight, published in September 2012, outlined the alleged abuse members of Lake Babine Nation and Ts’il Kaz Koh, or the Burns Lake Band, say they experienced while attending Immaculata and Prince George College. A.B. vehemently denied the allegations and filed a defamation suit against Robinson, which he later withdrew. The allegations have never been tested in court.

Police officers would turn the complainants’ relationship with Robinson against them, Bellehumeur said, by suggesting that their stories of abuse had been planted through their conversations with the journalist.

She called the suggestion dehumanizing.

“They seemed to assume that dozens of witnesses that provided statements to [Robinson] regarding childhood abuse were susceptible to influence to the point that they didn’t have the ability to tell their own truth,” Bellehumeur said.

“In fact, the evidence will show that she filled an important gap that was much needed by the community as a trusted person who listened and had the ability to assist survivors with being heard about their childhood abuse.”

‘There’s going to be some wounds opened up, trauma’

Local First Nations leaders — including Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation Chief Wesley Sam, Lake Babine Nation Chief Murphy Abraham and Ronnie Alec, a Hereditary Chief with the Lake Babine Nation — opened the hearings.

Chief Abraham described his own experience of physical, mental and verbal abuse while attending schools in Burns Lake, and the trauma that led him to drugs and alcohol.

“It’s taken me many years to get to the place where I’m at today,” he said. “Growing up going to these schools, I thought it was natural to be abused on a daily basis. I thought it was something that everyone grew up with.

“I know there’s going to be some wounds opened up, trauma.”

A man with dark hair and glasses stands below an orange flag and blue sky. He is wearing a vest with traditional Indigenous designs and a beaded pendant.
Chief Murphy Abraham of the Babine Lake Nation shared his own experiences of physical, mental and verbal abuse growing up as local First Nations leaders opened the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings at Ts'il Kaz Koh Gathering Place in Burns Lake this week. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

The smell of burning sage wafted down the halls of Ts’il Kaz Koh Gathering Place as counsellors with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society prepared to support the witnesses who will testify this week and next in Burns Lake. The hearings continue online from May 23 to June 1 and June 12 to 22.

The first to testify was Dorothy Williams, a Lake Babine Nation member and named complainant in the case. She clutched a teddy bear and framed photographs of her sister, Emma Williams, who died in December 2021 before she was able to testify. Her sister, Mary West, sat next to her for support.

Williams has spent the last 35 years working as an educator, she said, a vocation she said she felt called to in order to be “that gentler voice, that caring voice.” For half those years, she has taught her native Carrier language, Nedut’en Hibikinic, in an effort to preserve it.

She described a childhood that was short on money but full of abundance. Her family lived close to the land and there was always plenty to eat, including hunted game meat and fish. But her parents were forced to move from the Babine Lake area to Burns Lake so that the children could attend Immaculata, she said.

At Immaculata, Nedut’en Hibikinic was banned. Williams said teachers at the school called it “the devil’s language” and punished students who occasionally slipped into their native tongue. The punishment included forcing them to eat soap.

“To this day the smell of sunlight soap scares me,” she said.

She described a childhood filled with fear. She said A.B. and the sisters at Immaculata would beat the students or grab them forcibly by the hair, ears or arms and drag them from the classroom for things like speaking their language, getting something wrong or not moving fast enough.

At times they were beaten, she said, for no apparent reason at all.

“I don’t understand why we were beaten to a pulp, beaten so hard that we could hardly move,” she said. “Education does not have to hurt.”

Williams attended Immaculata from ages five to nine. At about age seven or eight, she had A.B. as a physical education teacher. It was her gym shorts — always hand-me-downs or purchased from the thrift store and routinely too big or too small — that made her a target of abuse, she said.

She said A.B. would hit her with a basketball, targeting her head or upper body. If the force of the blow didn’t knock her down, he would try again, the tribunal heard.

“I learned not to participate because I was so afraid I would do something wrong and he would punch me again,” she said. “He called us vulgar names and said vulgar things…. When you are constantly told you are stupid, you constantly think that.

“To this day I cannot figure out what we did that was so bad.”

Witnesses who spoke early this week talked about the boiler room at Immaculata, a place dreaded by the children. Located in the basement, it was noisy. But the sounds of the furnace didn’t drown out the screams of children who were taken there by A.B. and the sisters, the tribunal heard.

As she described her own memories of the boiler room, Williams paused.

“The screams I would hear and the cries would come from when [A.B.] took the kids to the boiler room,” she said. The sisters would force children to kneel, she said, and hold their hands out — prying them open if necessary. “I was crying. I was going to be strapped. Tears were streaming down my face. It hurt so much.”

She remembered Emma being dragged to the boiler room. Her sister would later tell her that her hands had been tied above her head and she could feel “the abuser’s hands all over her body,” Williams said. “All she felt was pain.”

It was Emma who, in 2012, told Williams about Laura Robinson. She suggested her sister also share her story with the journalist.

“I asked her, ‘Did you trust her? Did you feel safe with her?’ Emma said, ‘Yes,’” Williams recalled.

In addition to providing a statement to Robinson, Williams would go on to write a letter about the abuses to the Assembly of First Nations in 2016 and provide an interview to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2019.

But she confirmed, in response to a question by Jonathan Bujeau, lawyer for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, that she was never approached by RCMP to provide a statement during their investigation into A.B.

She suggested the force could do more to support Indigenous communities by improving their communication with victims. “Just being a listening ear,” she said. “Just listen to us. Just say, ‘We hear you. We understand what you went through as a child.’”

She said A.B. should provide a public apology.

According to a statement of particulars, the complainants also seek an order that RCMP divest its abuse investigation services in Indigenous communities, replacing it with an independent investigative team in keeping with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

The program would be implemented by Indigenous communities and funded by diverting funds from the RCMP’s investigation services branch, the statement says.

The hearing is chaired by Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Member Colleen Harrington, who will decide based on evidence presented whether the RCMP discriminated when it investigated the historic abuses.

The hearings continued Tuesday and Wednesday with testimony from complainant Richard Perry and journalist Laura Robinson.  [Tyee]

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