As a young boy Jack Kruger watched a classmate have his teeth gouged at and broken with a chisel four times by a student dentist.
Kruger, along with classmates at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, underwent numerous dental procedures including drilling for cavities and tooth extraction all without anaesthesia so the dentists in training could finish their practicum.
“We were smart kids, as smart as the little ones here,” he said pointing to children gathered amongst the crowd for the unveiling ceremony for the new Syilx Indian Residential School monument on the Penticton Indian Band. “We looked at each other’s teeth and we knew that we didn’t have any cavities.”
On other days at the school, he was jabbed with giant needles and injected with unknown substances. Sometimes someone would pass out and fall to the ground following the injection. The child had no memory of falling to the floor or what happened. Kruger said decades later he still doesn’t know what was injected into him.
“We were guinea pigs,” he said with a tone of anger in his voice.
Kruger, a member of the Syilx Indian Residential School Committee, shared his experiences in front of a crowd of more than 150 at the unveiling of the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s residential school monument. Created by artist Virgil ‘Smoker’ Marchand, the monument depicts two parents greeting their children.
The monument, dedicated to all those suffered at residential schools especially those that didn’t return, is located next to the hatchery on Penticton Indian Band land. The location is significant as it’s where the train and cattle trucks came to take the children away.
Kruger’s voice filled with emotion as he told those gathered, he is a broken man for his experiences at the residential school. He struggles to survive. His marriage and children have suffered as he’s worked to move forward from the atrocities done to him and children he knew growing up.
“In 100 years they destroyed us in what they call residential schools. We were traumatized the day we went to that train station. Kids were put in trucks like sardines, so tight they couldn’t sit down. If they had to go to the bathroom they peed themselves.”
Eric Mitchell, fellow Syilx Indian Residential School Committee member and survivor shared similar memories. He described small children boarding trains for the first time, crying, wondering what they’d done wrong to be sent away. He noted the torture the families at home suffered while they were away at school for 10 months.
“Aunties, mom and grandma’s know what was going on there. They have to go home and they cry and they wait and they was for them to come home,” he said.
Marchand was selected through a request for proposals by the committee made up of members from all seven Okanagan National Alliance communities. He too attended residential school.
“At six years old I was taken from grandma,” he said.
“I couldn’t understand why I was taken from someone I loved.”
The Colville Confederated Tribes member ran away five times from St. Mary’s Mission Boarding School in Omak, Wash. before finally being kicked out in Grade 9.
“I couldn’t understand why I had so much anger and bitterness,” he said.
Over the years through talking about his experiences with other men and creating art he found ways to move past the horror he lived.
Marchand said he wanted to do the sculpture tilted Bringing Our Children Home for several years.
The sculpture’s aim is to honour the many ways in which children who were torn away from the Indigenous communities are healing and moving forward.
“I thought about all the families that lost children,” he said in a tear-filled voice just before the unveiling sharing that he too had recently lost a child.
Grand Chief Phillip Stewart touched on the strength and resilience of Indigenous people who fought and defied the cultural genocide being enacted on them for more than a century.
Indigenous children were forced from their families and put in the residential school system from the 1890s until the last school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996.
“We know in our hearts we owe a debt of gratitude to the people that didn’t surrender, didn’t give up our language.”