A 92-year-old retired priest has been charged after a decade-long investigation into the Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.
Arthur Masse faces one count of indecent assault in relation to a 10-year-old girl who was a student at the school, RCMP said Friday. The alleged offence took place between 1968 and 1970 when Masse was an employee at the school.
The school was opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, which later became the Sagkeeng First Nation. It closed in 1970.
Chief Derrick Henderson said the arrest has opened old wounds.
“People were talking about this for many years. Did society believe them?” Henderson said.
“That’s what is always the most difficult thing.”
RCMP were notified of allegations of sexual abuse at the residential school in 2010.
Officers interacted with more than 700 people across North America throughout the investigation and obtained 75 victim and witness statements. More than 80 investigators were involved.
Police have said the investigation meant reviewing archived records of the school, including student and employee lists.
RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said the emotional trauma experienced by victims can continue even after many years. It was still present as officers investigated, he said.
Manaigre said the investigation found a possibility of other victims and other perpetrators at the residential school. But with the passage of time, some people have died, there was not enough evidence, or victims did not want to pursue charges, he said.
“This is a traumatizing experience. Some of them don’t want to relive it,” he said. “We understand.”
Masse was arrested at his home in Winnipeg. He is to appear in court Monday.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization called on law enforcement to investigate and reinvestigate all claims around residential schools.
Masse was part of the Catholic religious order called the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Rev. Ken Thorson of the OMI Lacombe Canada said the Oblates condemn all instances of sexual abuse and are “deeply sorry” to any survivors who were harmed.
Thorson said in an email that the order is committed to participating in the investigation and will co-operate fully in legal proceedings.
Information compiled by the Société historique de Saint-Boniface, an archive in Manitoba, said Masse was born in Ferland, Sask., in 1929. His first post was at the Fort Frances residential school in northern Ontario, where he stayed until 1957. He later returned to that school in 1970 and oversaw the student residence until it closed four years later.
Masse worked at a number of other schools during his time away from Fort Frances.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation Chief Derek Nepinak said Masse also spent time at the Pine Creek Residential School northwest of Winnipeg and was “notorious” there.
The Fort Alexander school also had a reputation for severe abuse.
Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation, sexual abuse and harsh discipline. Children from nearly two dozen First Nations attended the school for about 10 months of the year.
Sagkeeng First Nation recently discovered 190 anomalies during its search for unmarked graves near the school using ground-penetrating radar.
Initial data shows the irregularities fit some of the criteria for graves, but the community leadership has said more information is needed.
Henderson said he was taken aback when he learned of the arrest Thursday. He remembered the retired priest attending hockey games and other community events.
He said while reliving pain has been difficult, it is important for the truth to come out.
“This is another step in that story, another chapter in that story of the abuse in residential schools.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2022.
By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg