Outside the Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island, four-year-old Kathleen Horne cried out as the institution’s supervisors forced her mother to leave the grounds. The youngest of nine siblings, Horne was scared from that first moment in 1959 because of what happened to her brothers and sisters when they were taken. The supervisors then told her if she didn’t stop crying she’d be strapped, meaning they’d strike the child with what resembled a very thick belt.
That was the first threat Horne, a member of Tsawout First Nation, faced at the residential school, where for the next decade of her young life she would be beaten, sexually abused, and punished for expressing any form of her culture. It’s why she now shares the truth of what happened to her – for the children who never made it home.
Many of Horne’s brothers and sisters were at the residential school at the same time, but they were separated and weren’t allowed to see or speak to each other. She hadn’t seen any of her siblings for a long time during her first year when all the children were brought to an auditorium. Horne was crying because a film they were being shown had frightened her, through teary eyes, she spotted her sister a couple of rows away. She ran over and collapsed into her sister, who pleaded for Horne to go back to her seat or else they’d both get in trouble.
“She held me for a minute, then the supervisors saw us and I was yanked out of her arms, forced to sit back in my chair and smacked,” Horne said. “I was told if I went to my sister I’d be beaten again.”
She didn’t see her sister for a long time after that and knew if they were seen together, they’d be punished. Those first couple of years were sad and lonely, so Horne forced herself to bottle up her emotions.
“I was so small and I didn’t realize how it was changing me at the time.”
The children couldn’t show any form of affection, just a hug or holding hands would mean they’d face beatings. Long after aging out of the residential school at 14, Horne wasn’t able to embrace her own family, except for her mother.
Her mom was only allowed to visit once or twice a year, and one time arrived with a girl by her side.
“I was hugging my mom and I said ‘Who is that?’” she remembered. “My mom said, ‘That’s your sister Gloria’ and I didn’t even know her because I hadn’t seen her for so long.”
Gloria is seven years older than Horne.
“That was really shocking when I didn’t even know my own sister.”
Her brothers were grown men by the time she left the residential school. They suffered from alcoholism due to the abuse they faced during their time there – with three of them dying from the disease. Her brothers’ fighting and drinking eventually became too much and Horne had to separate herself from them.
They’ve since reconnected, but the togetherness of their family never really recovered.
“I know that it wasn’t their fault, they didn’t know how to live a normal family life because it had been taken away from them.”
Before being taken, she was walking by and saw one of her brothers calling to her from the fenceline. He begged Horne to run to their house and get him something, anything, to eat. The children never knew what they were being fed at the institution, but it wasn’t enough as they were always starving.
They survived by plucking roots and other things growing from the yard and eating those, she said.
Horne only spoke in her Nuu-Chah-Nulth language when she arrived at the residential school and was struck with the strap for it. To this day, more than 50 years after leaving the institution, it’s too painful for Horne to learn how to speak or understand her own language.
And like many others, Horne was sexually abused at the residential school.
“Not being able to protect myself or get away – you’re stuck there,” she said. “That’s why I dedicated my life to my children because I never wanted that to happen to any child.”
In 1995, a former Port Alberni residential school supervisor, who worked there from 1948 to 1968, was convicted of 18 counts of indecent assault against students and sentenced to 11 years in jail, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
In May, the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school site was traumatizing and heartbreaking for Horne. In trying to explain what she felt in that moment, she let out a long and defeated sigh before going silent for a couple of moments.
“We knew it was happening but we had no way of saying it,” Horne said.
Kids in the dorms would suddenly disappear and the supervisors would say they went home or ran away, Horne said. If the children kept asking about them, the supervisors would punish them and tell them not to speak about it anymore. Horne said they just wanted the punishments to end and so, out of fear, they never brought up the disappearing kids again.
“When you were threatened like that, you just didn’t say or do anything because you just don’t know,” she said. “It made me realize how lucky we are to have gone home, to be alive.”
That fear and trauma instilled in the children lived on for decades and stopped Horne, her siblings, and countless others from talking about what they went through. Many in Horne’s family felt ashamed they’d been abused and, about half a century later, they were still scared.
Things started to change when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) started having hearings with local survivors to learn the truths about residential schools. Horne and some of her brothers initially didn’t want to speak, but her oldest daughter convinced her to go.
“She said, ‘Mom you have to go, you have to tell somebody what happened to you.’”
Decades after leaving the Port Alberni residential school, with her husband and daughter by her side, Horne finally voiced her experience for the first time at a 2013 TRC hearing.
“We, as the survivors, can tell the stories for the ones who didn’t get to go home and the things that we had to endure to stay alive.”
After hiding the horrors for so long, Horne found it was liberating to tell her story.
“I felt like it was gone, it was lifted off of me and I didn’t carry that around with me anymore,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid anymore of being reprimanded or being ashamed.”
She hopes stories like hers will help build a better foundation of history so future generations can embrace their Indigenous culture and language without fear.
A family was stolen from Horne at the age of four, but the one she’s built is what saved her and helped her overcome what she faced as a child. Today, Horne’s husband, three children, six grandchildren and two soon-to-be-born great-grandchildren are what she treasures most.
“The ones who didn’t get to come home never got to experience that, so I feel really blessed and I’m not scared anymore of telling people what happened.”
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