By The Canadian Press
Manitoba RCMP say a 92-year-old priest has been charged after a decade-long investigation into the Fort Alexander Residential School northeast of Winnipeg.
Arthur Masse was charged with one count of indecent assault on a 10-year-old girl who was a student at the school, RCMP said Friday. The alleged offence took place between 1968 and 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.”
Mounties have said that officers with the major crime unit began looking into the residential school in 2010 and a criminal investigation began the following year.
The school was opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, which later became the Sagkeeng First Nation.
The school closed in 1970.
Police said more than 80 RCMP investigators reviewed archived records of the school, including student and employee lists, and spoke to or interacted with more than 700 people across North America. In total, 75 witness and victim statements were obtained by police.
“The size and scope of this investigation has meant many years of investigative work,” said Sgt. Paul Manaigre, Media Relations Officer with the Manitoba RCMP. “While we have certainly had the steps involved in a police investigation top of mind throughout the whole process, we have also been very aware of the affect our investigation was having on the community. The emotional trauma experienced by victims of abuse is very real, and despite the years that intervened between the alleged occurrences and when police were investigating, that trauma is still present.”
Manitoba RCMP say this is the only investigation into residential schools underway and with this charge, the investigation is concluded.
“Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, many of the victims were not able to participate in the investigation, whether that be for mental or physical health reasons or because the victim is now deceased,” said Manaigre.
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 Societe 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 a search 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.”
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