Fuelled by trauma – his own and others’ – and a need for justice, David McCann crashed the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Vancouver this summer with a stack of leaflets he had printed back at his office.
Pope Francis was coming to Canada to issue an apology for abuses at Catholic-run residential schools that operated across the country, and Mr. McCann wanted that apology to include people like him – boys who had been abused at so-called training schools in Ontario, also run by the church.
These residential institutions were run by a Roman Catholic lay order, the Brothers of the Christian Schools, under contract from the Ontario government.
Mr. McCann’s flyer – titled “Why is there a wall of silence?” – pointed out that thousands of Indigenous boys had been sent to these schools, and that rumours of unmarked graves at two training schools for boys – reformatories, essentially – had persisted for years. He specifically cited the St. Joseph’s Training School for Boys, where he had been sent as a child, and the St. John’s Training School for Boys.
(There were other training schools operating across Ontario and in other provinces; Mr. McCann has focused on these two, run by the same religious order.)
Mr. McCann, who is not Indigenous, never got that apology. But his efforts have led to a significant development in his campaign. On Saturday, Mr. McCann is flying to Ontario from Vancouver, where he lives, in order to tour the grounds of the former St. Joseph’s Training School in Alfred, Ont., east of Ottawa.
He believes there are unmarked graves there, and he is going to share what he knows at the site with Ontario’s Chief Coroner, an investigator with the Ontario Provincial Police and Kimberly Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.
“We know that kids died in that school,” said Mr. McCann, 76, who is sad and angry and tenacious. He says the policy at the time was to not send the bodies of Indigenous children who died at the institutions back to their reserves.
“You had kids there from the Far North, they didn’t ship them back home. They died there, they got stuck in a grave, and that’s it.”
Ms. Murray, who is Mohawk and a member of Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation, was appointed to the Special Interlocutor position by the federal Justice Minister in June.
“If there’s buried children in the residential schools, there’s a very good chance there’s burials at the reformatories,” Ms. Murray said.
Mr. McCann was twelve years old when he was sent to St. Joseph’s in 1958, a court-ordered punishment for a series of violations he took part in with other kids, including break-ins.
After crying himself to sleep on that first lonely night in the dormitory, he was awoken in the middle of the night by a priest who took him to another room and sexually assaulted him. Mr. McCann attended the school for at least two years; he doesn’t remember exactly how long. But he remembers the abuse – sexual and physical – he suffered and witnessed.
St. Joseph’s was opened in 1933, modelled after the first Catholic training school operated by the Christian Brothers, St. John’s – which opened in Scarborough in 1895. Having been declared a fire trap, St. John’s moved to the site of a former farm near Uxbridge, Ont., in the 1950s. Survivors of that school have also come forward with details of their abuse there.
The children were often sentenced to these schools for behaviour that would not be considered criminal for an adult, as recounted in the 1995 book Boys Don’t Cry: The Struggle for Justice and Healing in Canada’s Biggest Sex Scandal, which Mr. McCann wrote with journalist Darcy Henton.
Mr. McCann says at least a quarter of the boys who were sent there were Indigenous. Often they were sent for truancy, for running away from the residential schools – where they were also being abused.
Years later, as an adult, Mr. McCann was watching the news and learned about the Mount Cashel abuse scandal. “And I just sat there mesmerized, watching the story. And I thought ‘God, it wasn’t just St. Joseph’s.’”
He went public with his story, beginning an organization, Helpline, and a campaign that led to some 1,600 other survivors of St. Joseph’s and St. John’s coming forward. It resulted in one of the largest OPP investigations in the province’s history, millions of dollars in compensation for hundreds of victims, and class-action lawsuits.
He sought – and eventually received, after launching a lawsuit – an apology from the Ontario government. But the apology from the Catholic Church never came, not even after Mr. McCann travelled to the Vatican in 2017 to ask for one.
Apologies are the central foundation to reconciliation, Mr. McCann explained over a long, emotional lunch at Vancouver’s Granville Island, a popular tourist area with a public market, artisanal shops and restaurants.
Mr. McCann, whose property management office is at Granville Island, has had a long and varied career – everything from government contractor to art gallery owner.
When Mr. McCann learned of the Pope’s visit to Canada this year, he became active again. He wrote to senior Vatican officials, to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to archbishops. He asked for an addendum to any apology: “In addition to apologizing to Canadian First Nations people, I would like the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church to apologize to all Canadians for the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of children, women and men at the hands of members of Roman Catholic religious orders, lay staff, and clergy.”
He received no response.
One morning in July, he was reading the newspaper when he learned that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was meeting in town. “And I’m just sitting there and I’m going, ‘Do you just let it go? Or do you do something?’”
He did something. He typed up that leaflet. In bold, all-caps, he wrote: “Why has no-one returned my calls, answered my letters, or even replied to stories in the press about the rumours of unmarked graves and missing children at St. John’s and St. Joseph’s Training Schools for Boys?”
He printed a pile of copies and drove to the conference with a friend, where he passed out the papers.
Soon, he was sought out by Ms. Murray, who was attending the conference. Several people had shown her this note that was going around. “I started reading this and I was like ‘Where is he? I need to talk to him,’” Ms. Murray said in an interview.
When she approached him, Mr. McCann initially thought she was security and that he was being kicked out of the event. But she wanted to talk. “It was meant to happen that we meet each other,” she says.
Mr. McCann told her his story. “It was a pretty emotional meeting. There were a couple of times I broke down,” Mr. McCann said.
Ms. Murray said she’d do some research and get back to him. He heard from her that night. He had delivered a copy of his book to her hotel and she began reading it immediately. “I took his concerns very seriously,” she said.
The Ontario Chief Coroner was brought in, there were meetings over Zoom, and a plan was made.
“What we wanted to do, prior to the snowfall, was have an opportunity to meet Mr. McCann … and also to be able to see physically areas where he has perspective about from his time living at the school and help to inform the next steps we would take,” Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said.
Mr. McCann will tour the site of the former St. Joseph’s school on Monday with officials including Ms. Murray, Dr. Huyer and the OPP investigator working with the coroner’s office.
“We can look at maps and we can pinpoint it on maps; but it’s so important to have that lived experience of the people that were forced to live on these grounds and can tell you, ‘This wasn’t here, this was over here.’ Just them being on those grounds,” Ms. Murray said.
This is a preliminary visit, not a ground-penetrating radar search for unmarked graves, although that may happen later.
Ms. Murray says she believes if any bodies are found, they will likely be those of Inuit or First Nations children, because of government policies of that era. “They did not pay to send children back home.”
There will be other searches at more sites. Ms. Murray hopes they can be done expediently. “We can’t keep passing this sacred work off to the next generation. We can’t keep passing the burden to our children and grandchildren,” she says.
“Let’s get it done now. I don’t want parking lots and buildings and swimming pools to be built over my ancestors.”
Mr. McCann doesn’t think he will ever get that apology from the Pope. But he is now putting his energy into this search.
“I can’t change the past, but I can help change the future. I can take that pain and turn it into hope. I mean there are just so many people who walk away. So many who are so damaged they can’t do anything. And I have been blessed with the opportunity to do something about it.”
The Globe and Mail