By Laurie Tritschler
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The following story mentions sexual abuse at an Indian Residential School. The IRS term is used merely to reflect the relevant historical context.
Shootin’ the Breeze uses the term “Indigenous” to refer to Canada’s First Peoples in general. It is the policy of STB to refer to First Peoples by their ancestral names wherever possible.
Help is always available for IRS survivors at the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program’s toll free number: 1-800-721-0066.
The MD of Pincher Creek posthumously honoured an extraordinary Albertan at an emotional ceremony at district chambers on Jan. 24.
Dave Friesen, who passed away in June 2022, was posthumously awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal in December for his tireless investigation of sexual abuse at an Indian residential school in northern British Columbia starting in the late 1950s.
Friesen’s daughter, Shannon Culham, and her husband, Gord, attended the second service when council separately commemorated his legacy last week.
“Today’s medal recipient led rather than wait to be led,” Coun. Harold Hollingshead said, his voice breaking as he recalled his friend’s single efforts on behalf of Kaska Dena boys who survived “dehumanizing” mistreatment after they were forced to attend the Lower Post Residential School.
The school was funded by the federal government and run by Catholic missionaries based in White Horse, Yukon, according to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. As the Globe and Mail’s Patrick White reported in December 2021, Friesen faced countless hurdles as he tried to bring down the school’s lay brother and serial sexual predator, Ben Garand, derisively known as “Backdoor Benny.”
Friesen couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was the only Mountie to formally investigate residential school abuse until the 1980s. Garand died in prison before he could be tried for his crimes at Lower Post, but Friesen went to great lengths to testify about what he knew when survivors sued the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church in the early 1990s.
Decades later, Hollingshead hit on these and other of Friesen’s works as Culham wept softly in her seat.
“Dave understood that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wanted to bring us to a place where the cycle can be broken and trust can be renewed,” he said. “Dave’s first steps to take us from where we were to where we stand today will not be forgotten.”
“He was a trailblazer,” Culham later told Shootin’ the Breeze at her family home near Cowley.
“The Jubilee was a great honour,” but Culham said her dad especially valued his gift from the Kaska Dena, a pair of moccasins handmade by Deputy Chief Harlan Schilling.
“The message was clear: He walked in their shoes,” she said.
Culham was very young when her dad started looking into Garand.
“I never knew about Lower Post until later on,” she said, adding, “I think he never shared it with us because he didn’t want to change our perspective on things.”
The RCMP transferred Friesen to Indigenous communities in northern B.C., the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, where, Culham said, “the RCMP weren’t the law. The church was.”
Mounties came and went through places like Watson Lake (near Lower Post) or Coppermine, N.W.T. (now Kugluktuk, Nunavut), or the
20 other detachments where Friesen served. Priests stayed, often for decades.
Friesen helped where and when he could.
When he found out the Anglican church in Coppermine tightly controlled the hamlet’s only hockey skates, he spearheaded an equipment drive and taught local boys how to play Canada’s national sport.
When Catholic priests called on Friesen to arrest boys who’d skipped a flight bound for a residential school to the south, Friesen wryly asked if the church would pay for it.
When, predictably, they said no, Friesen quipped, “Well, then, I’m not going to arrest them.”
Friesen often wondered why families never reported the abuse at Lower Post. As he found out later, parents and survivors were bullied, threatened and closely watched by the church and its enablers.
The Kaska Dena burned Lower Post’s hulking remains to the ground in the summer of 2021. The First Nation plans to open a learning centre at the site, part of which Culham said would be dedicated to her father.
She and her family will be there when the centre opens later this year.
“That means so much more to me than the Jubilee,” she said.
Lower Post closed down in 1975, roughly 20 years after Friesen told school administrators about the abuse that was happening on their watch.
As of May 2022, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation had recorded the names of 4,130 Indigenous children known to have died at residential schools across Canada.
Laurie Tritschler is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with SHOOTIN’ THE BREEZE. The LJI program is federally funded.