SOMERSET, Man. — Victoria McIntosh’s thoughts returned to herself as a small, vulnerable 10-year-old girl when she learned a retired Catholic priest was being charged with sexually assaulting her at a residential school.
For most of her adult life, it felt like she was running from the horrors of the Fort Alexander Residential School in Sagkeeng First Nation.
The feeling came to a halt, she said, on June 17 when police announced the arrest of Arthur Masse, 92, who is charged with indecent assault for alleged abuse between 1968 and 1970.
"I felt guilty at first. I thought, ‘He’s a pathetic, old man,’ but then, ‘No, I was a 10-year-old kid.’ I couldn’t fight back," she told the Free Press Wednesday. "How dare you? I was 10 years old. I can have empathy, I can have compassion, but he had no right to cross that line.
"He was an adult. He knew better, but he didn’t do better."
"I was 10 years old. I can have empathy, I can have compassion, but he had no right to cross that line." – Victoria McIntosh
McIntosh, 63, is speaking out because she is tired of carrying shame and wants to educate people about what happened at residential schools and the impact on survivors.
"I did it for the next generations. I want to have just one day of peace where I don’t have to think of this anymore," she said. "I was hurt and I was broken. I’m putting the pieces together.
"I’m on my healing journey, but I’ve accepted that some of these wounds are so deep I’m going to be healing until I take my last breath."
McIntosh sat in a chair on the front porch of her home in Somerset, Man., about 140 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, as she spoke to a reporter.
She happens to live across the street from a Catholic church, and had to pause for a few moments as its bell chimed at noon and echoed through the community.
She soon pulled out the coat, handmade by her grandmother, that she was wearing when she was five on her first day at the Fort Alexander school in eastern Manitoba in 1964.
A nun forced her to take it off at the door and then threw it to her mother, she said.
Years of physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of priests and nuns followed, as she dealt with the loneliness and sadness of being apart from her family, said McIntosh, an artist, school teacher and knowledge keeper at a women’s shelter.
She said Masse, who was always looking around "like he was scouting," made girls feel uncomfortable.
"He was always hanging around the girls’ bathroom. We thought, ‘Why do you need to be here? What are you looking for?’" she said. "He always had a sneer. He would look like he was soft in his mannerisms.
"He reminded me of somebody who could sneak up on you and you wouldn’t hear it, and all of a sudden, he was there."
“He reminded me of somebody who could sneak up on you and you wouldn’t hear it, and all of a sudden, he was there.” – Victoria McIntosh
McIntosh said she and her classmates were "always getting smacked and hit" and insulted by priests and nuns. She would get hit if she didn’t pour coffee a certain way for staff.
"I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee for the longest time. I would get nervous," she said.
McIntosh suffered flashbacks and nightmares. She has had difficulty trusting people, especially those in positions of authority.
As she dealt with "real self-hate" in her teenage years, she had thoughts of suicide, self-harmed and developed an eating disorder. She dropped out of school.
McIntosh confided in people about her time at the Fort Alexander school, but most didn’t believe her. One of the first people she told was a man, who was in a position of power and trust. He then began to abuse her, she said.
Art became her "religion," as she sought an outlet while trying to cope with her trauma. She has created a number of pieces based on her residential school experience.
A few years ago, McIntosh made a doll after thinking of a girl she met at the Fort Alexander school. The last time she saw her, she said, the girl was being punched repeatedly by a nun.
"She had on a long, little raggedy dress. I don’t know what happened to her," said McIntosh, as tears welled in her eyes. "I didn’t see her after that. I felt so sorry for her. I hope you’re OK."
McIntosh, who is from the Turtle Clan, found "truth" and comfort as she explored her culture and traditions. While researching her family’s history, she discovered she has a half-brother who lives in the U.S. They are planning to meet in person for the first time in a few weeks.
McIntosh, now a mother and grandmother, hasn’t seen Masse since the residential school closed in 1970 and she moved to Red Lake, Ont., when she was 12 to attend public school.
She is planning to go to court in Powerview when he is scheduled to make his first appearance July 20.
Many abusers will never be held accountable by the courts, McIntosh acknowledges, but she believes they may be held accountable elsewhere.
"I know there is a God. I know there is another place that we go to," she said.
More people have come forward with allegations of abuse since the charge against Masse was announced last week following a decade-long RCMP investigation into the school, which developed a reputation for abuse.
Police have not said how many people have contacted officers.
McIntosh said the RCMP contacted her about nine or 10 years ago during the investigation into the school. She felt apprehensive, but agreed to answer officers’ questions.
"They didn’t mention his name, but I knew right away who they were talking about," she said.
As years passed, she didn’t think anything would come of it. Then the RCMP recently got in touch to tell her about the charge against Masse, who was arrested at his home in Winnipeg and released with conditions.
"It was surreal," she said. "Like, ‘Wow, it’s going to happen.’ I could feel my mom (was there), and even the spirit of my grandpa, who was a residential school survivor."
“It was surreal... Like, ‘Wow, it’s going to happen.’ I could feel my mom (was there), and even the spirit of my grandpa, who was a residential school survivor.” – Victoria McIntosh
Her 76-year-old mother, Emily, died after she was hit by a vehicle in Selkirk in March 2016.
Before her death, McIntosh’s mother opened up about her own trauma from her time in residential schools, and apologized to her daughter.
"She said, ‘I felt so guilty I had to leave you there. I cried and cried I had to leave you there,’" said McIntosh, who was brought to tears as she recalled the moment. "I just said to her, ‘It’s not your fault.’"
After struggling to find her place in life, McIntosh enrolled at the University of Manitoba around the age of 50. She completed her bachelor of arts, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in education.
She speaks to students about residential schools, as part of her efforts to educate people.
"The next generation has a right to know. I want to do my part to say, ‘It happened,’" she said. "This is Canada’s shame. It’s time that we start talking to each other.
"If we don’t tell our stories, someone else is going to tell them for us."
Masse was principal and, later, an administrator at the Fort Alexander school between August 1966 and July 1969, according to online records from the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
He also worked at the Pine Creek, Brandon and Fort Frances, Ont., residential schools.
"If we don’t tell our stories, someone else is going to tell them for us." – Victoria McIntosh
The Manitoba Métis Federation said Wednesday it is launching its own investigation into Masse, who spent time in the Métis villages of Duck Bay and Camperville.
"In his time, Mr. Masse spent an estimated 20 years in our community churches, presiding over services and ceremonies," MMF president David Chartrand said in a statement. "During this time, citizens in these communities would have received both group and one-on-one tutoring and teaching from this individual."
The residential schools resolution health support program has a crisis line for survivors and their relatives at 1-866-925-4419
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.