The other residential school runaways

Two boys escaping a residential school followed tragically in the footsteps of Chanie Wenjack. Their story was forgotten. Until now.
Jones Road, the winding route to Grassy Narrows, Ontario, with the Lount Lake Road turn on the left. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

His name was Phillip Swain, but the people who loved that little boy never called him Phillip. He was “Bean,” even to Mom and Dad. All these decades later, nobody quite remembers who thought up the nickname, or why it fit so well. All that’s certain is it stuck.

Bean’s 12-year-old body, frozen to death, was discovered on Dec. 5, 1970—“by chance,” as a coroner later wrote. An off-duty police officer from Kenora, Ont., was hunting in a remote patch of wilderness, about 60 km from town, when he noticed a foot sticking up from the ground. The rest of Bean was hidden under a blanket of fresh snow, dressed in clothes that were no match for the frigid northern air: long underwear, trousers, a thin parka, rubber shoes, bare hands. He’d been lying there for nearly a week. The pathologist who examined the body noted “irregular defects” on some of his fingers, “probably due to birds or animal bites.”

Two days later—Dec. 7, 1970—a search team led by provincial police found the other missing 12-year-old: Roderick Taypaywaykejick. Although he’d managed to walk a few hundred metres farther than his chum, he never came close to reaching shelter. Cold, hungry, and no doubt terrified, Roderick collapsed beside a large rock and never stood up again. His nose and forehead were bruised, and his lips had turned blue.

Roderick’s father, James Keesick, was among the men sifting through the snow that Monday. He was adamant about being there, holding out hope, however slim, that his eldest boy might still be alive. “I will never forget that,” says Steve Fobister, 64, another member of the search team. “When we found him, James picked up his son and stood him up—it was like standing up a board, he was so stiff—and he brushed the snow off his body. He was crying uncontrollably. Even the police, they couldn’t hold back their tears.”

Phillip Swain and Roderick Taypaywaykejick were Ojibwe children—and together, they had worked up the courage to run away from St. Mary’s Indian Residential School on the outskirts of Kenora. Their plan was to walk home to Grassy Narrows First Nation, an 85-km trek. They arrived in coffins instead.

Buildings at St. Mary’s circa 1940-1960. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)
Buildings at St. Mary’s circa 1940-1960. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

Douglas Swain, Bean’s younger brother, was five years old at the funeral. He is 51 now. “I still remember like it was yesterday,” he says, sitting at his kitchen table in Grassy Narrows. “As a little kid, I just wanted to get inside that little casket and try to get him out.”

On Oct. 18, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip released his much-anticipated Secret Path, a solo album and graphic novel inspired by the awful story of Chanie Wenjack, another 12-year-old Ojibwe boy who perished in the freezing cold after fleeing a residential school 50 years ago. Like so many, the iconic singer first read about the runaway in the pages of Maclean’s, in a 1967 story that drew national attention to a case that otherwise would have surely been forgotten. Chanie was enrolled at Cecilia Jeffrey School, also in Kenora, and all he wanted was to reach his father—in Ogoki Post, a reserve 600 km away.

“Chanie haunts me,” says Downie, who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “His story is Canada’s story.”

One of thousands of stories. All told, the federal government spent more than a century snatching Indigenous children from their families and placing them in church-run schools, where assimilation, not education, was the primary goal. More than 3,200 kids died inside those hellish institutions, and hundreds of the dead remain unidentified, their names never properly recorded.

Desperate to escape, many students made a run for it. Some were caught and promptly returned, their truancy severely punished. A lucky few managed to find freedom. And some runaways died trying—at least 33, according to exhaustive records examined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Chanie Wenjack was not the first, and although he should have been the last, he wasn’t. A few more would die an equally horrific death, including those two boys who fled the very same town four years later: Phillip Swain and Roderick Taypaywaykejick.

Related: First came truth. Now comes the hard part.

This is the story, never told until now, of the boys who followed in Chanie’s footsteps—an obscure but important piece of history stitched together with archived coroner’s records, internal government memos and the first-hand accounts of surviving loved ones. Some relatives were surprised, even initally suspicious, to suddenly hear from Maclean’s so many decades later. But after 46 years, they welcome the chance to tell the country about a tragedy that’s been buried far too long.

“Canadians should know about my brother and Phillip,” says Catherine Taypaywaykejick, Roderick’s sister, who was 15—and a fellow student at St. Mary’s—when the boys died. “I hope people know what we went through, and that some survivors are still here.”

Catherine Taypaywakejick, Roderick’s sister, at the Wellness Centre in the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Catherine Taypaywaykejick, Roderick’s sister, at the Wellness Centre in the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Grassy Narrows has long been a heartbreaking place, a reserve so ravaged that it’s difficult to diagnose the beginning of its breakdown. Many point to the mid-1960s, when Ottawa convinced the band to relocate from its ancestral land into prefab houses so close together—and linked to a Kenora-bound road—that it forever disrupted the community’s roots as hunters and gatherers. Alcohol flowed into the reserve, and premature deaths, many by suicide, became all too common. A visiting sociologist once described Grassy Narrows as “more deeply damaged than any community I had ever seen. Or heard about. Or even imagined.”

Then came word, in 1970, that the surrounding river was contaminated, poisoned with mercury dumped upstream by a pulp and paper mill. Don’t eat the fish, residents were warned. Don’t even swim. What was left of the old ways—trapping, guiding, commercial fishing—was decimated. Welfare rates skyrocketed, ushering in an era of despair and dependency that continues to this day.

Clifford Swain grew up amid all that upheaval. In the summer of 1969, he and his younger siblings were living in nearby Ball Lake, where his dad, Isaac Kabestra, was still working as a guide for tourists and checking his trap lines for beaver and mink. Clifford was 12. His younger brother Phillip—Bean—was almost 11. Those days remain his fondest memories. “We were a happy family,” Clifford says, “before they took us.”

Clifford Swain, brother of Phillip, walks through the forest where his younger brothers body is buried near the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Clifford Swain, brother of Phillip, walks through the forest where his younger brother’s body is buried near the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

If the Department of Indian Affairs came calling, parents had little choice but to surrender their children to residential schools. The alternative was potential jail time. Clifford and Bean were shipped to St. Mary’s, founded in 1897 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers. The principal at the time was Father Gaston Lebleu, who would later insist, under oath, that his students were never subjected to corporal punishment.

Survivors remember things very differently. “They would strap you on the hands,” says Simon Fobister, the current Grassy Narrows chief, who went to St. Mary’s with Roderick and Bean. “A lot of kids would pull their hands out at the last second because they didn’t want to feel the pain.”

Fred Kelly lived at the school for 13 years, from the age of four to 17. He later went on to help negotiate the historic residential-schools settlement. “You were afraid that whatever you do is going to be wrong and you’re going to get punished for it,” he says. “You are stripped of your culture, you are stripped of the only language that you ever knew—the one your parents spoke to you with—and you are called a wild savage that needs the devil beat out of you. Why wouldn’t anybody try to run away?”

Clifford remembers the cramped dormitory. The slop served in the dining hall. The constant threat of force. “It was very strict,” says the 59-year-old, sitting inside his Grassy Narrows home. “Me and my brother couldn’t speak English that well, and that’s why we’d get strapped all the time, or pulled by the ears. Every time we spoke our language, that’s when we would get punishment.”

Clifford was older, but it was Bean who watched over him. A natural leader, he was someone the other students leaned on, too. “He helped other kids when they were lonely or crying, and he would try to console them,” Clifford recalls. “Every night, I would see him helping other kids.”

Together, the brothers made it through that first year at St. Mary’s and reunited with their family for the summer. Douglas, just five at the time, remembers watching closely as Bean taught him how to fish and hunt. He also remembers, vividly, that his older brother was afraid of returning to St. Mary’s. “He told me he didn’t want to go back to school,” he recalls. “He said they kept strapping him.”

Douglas Swain, Bean’s younger brother, was five years old at the funeral. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Douglas Swain, Bean’s younger brother, was five years old at the funeral. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

But Bean and Clifford were sent back, returning to St. Mary’s when classes resumed in September 1970. A new student joined them at the Kenora residence: Roderick Taypaywaykejick (also known as Keesick, for short, as many in his family are).

A member of the Grassy Narrows band, Roderick had been living with his mother and some siblings near Canyon Lake. “It was summer,” Catherine remembers. “My mom got a message saying: ‘You have to send your kids to school.’ ” She and Roderick were assigned to St. Mary’s; a younger brother and sister were sent to Cecilia Jeffrey, Chanie’s school.

“It was really hard,” recalls Catherine, now 61. “We were not allowed to mingle with the boys, but I would see Roderick in the distance sometimes and I would call him. He’d come running and of course we’d hug.”

Roderick had a stutter, and Catherine, ever the protector, was constantly reassuring him—and making certain nobody teased her kid brother. “We were like this,” she says, holding up two crossed fingers. “We were very close. He looked up to me.”

Former site of St. Mary's Indian Residential School on the outskirts of Kenora, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Former site of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School on the outskirts of Kenora, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

By 1970, St. Mary’s was more residence than school. Most of the children, except those in early primary grades, were being bused to local classrooms in Kenora, then returned to campus for supper and bedtime. Roderick and Bean attended Mount Carmel, a now-shuttered elementary school in the downtown core. So did Clifford.

On Friday, Nov. 27, 1970, over lunch hour, Roderick and Bean snuck away from Mount Carmel’s playground and walked toward the local Indian Affairs office, a short distance away. There, they spoke to a guidance counsellor named Clark Day, pleading for permission to go home. Roderick was especially persistent; multiple times, he had pestered Father Lebleu with the same request.

The guidance counsellor convinced both boys to return to school, and when they left his office he assumed that’s where they went. Testifying at the coroner’s inquest a few weeks later, Day said he never thought to offer the pair a ride because it was typical to see students downtown at lunch. The boys never arrived back at Mount Carmel—or St. Mary’s.

“At afternoon recess time, I didn’t see him,” Clifford recalls. “I was worried.” By supper, when his brother didn’t surface in the meal line, he was frantic. He and Phillip ate dinner together every night, like clockwork. “I tried to tell people, the counsellors and the sisters, but nobody listened,” he recalls. “Nobody listened.”

Related: Almost missing. Almost murdered. Stories of survival from Indigenous women.

Chanie Wenjack’s death was supposed to have changed things. For decades, residential school administrators gave little thought to the safety of runaways; in case after case, investigations concluded that if officials had acted more quickly, a runaway who died could have been saved. But the coroner’s jury that examined Chanie’s case persuaded Indian Affairs to issue much clearer guidelines to every institution (albeit only in Ontario) on how to deal with runaways: they were to inform police, interview friends, and organize a prompt search. If six hours passed with no sign of the student, parents were to be notified.

Four years after Chanie’s high-profile death, those new guidelines clearly meant nothing. Nobody at St. Mary’s called the local police until 9:35 p.m.—and the missing-persons report was never passed along to the provincial police, who patrol beyond Kenora’s city limits, because the local cops assumed the school would have alerted them. In other words, nobody went sprinting out to look for the missing boys.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Clifford says. “It was extremely cold outside with a little bit of drizzle. I kept pacing back and forth, looking outside.” Clifford was 13 years old.

Jones Road, the winding route to Grassy Narrows, Ontario, with the Lount Lake Road turn on the left. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Jones Road, the winding route to Grassy Narrows, Ontario, with the Lount Lake Road turn on the left. The boys were only 35 km away from home when they took a wrong turn here. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Although nobody knew it at the time, Roderick and Bean did manage to make it 45 km out of town that Friday, covering some ground by hitchhiking, the rest by foot. Near midnight, they knocked on the door of a cabin that belonged to one of the boys’ relatives, a common stopover for Grassy Narrows residents heading to and from Kenora. There was no phone there, however, no way to reassure anyone that they were safe.

The next morning, Saturday, Nov. 28, the boys ate breakfast at the cabin, a meal that proved to be their last. Then they ventured back out toward the main road that leads to the reserve. They were already more than halfway home by then, about 35 km away, and as the coroner later noted, “The chances of being given rides were very good since there is a good deal of traffic on this road.” The relative who let the pair sleep over—and gave them some matches before they left—later told police the same thing.

“The boys were dressed adequately for walking,” the coroner wrote, “but not enough for survival if they stopped walking.”

Or if they made a disastrous wrong turn.

A few kilometres from the cabin lies a fork in the road, unmarked by street signs at the time. To the right is Jones Road, the winding route to Grassy Narrows; to the left is Lount Lake Road, the wrong way. The boys veered left.

“If they went to the right, I’m sure somebody would have picked them up,” Catherine says. “They thought they were going the right way, but they were just little kids.”

By the time Phillip and Roderick realized their mistake and turned around, it was too late. The coroner concluded they died of exposure after the sun disappeared that Saturday night, trying in vain to retrace their steps to the split in the road.

Back at St. Mary’s, rumours swirled. On the girls’ side, someone told Catherine that her brother and Phillip had run away. On the boys’ side, Clifford pressed the supervisors as best he could, helpless to do much else for his beloved brother. In the meantime, nobody in a position of authority reached out to the boys’ parents. To be fair, there was only one phone at Grassy Narrows in 1970; still, no one from the school or the local police felt compelled to drive to the reserve to interview relatives, or to see if Bean and Roderick had made it home. In fact, it was Bean’s father, Isaac Kabestra, who reported to the Ontario Provincial Police that his son was missing—on Dec. 1, four days after he and Roderick vanished. (It’s not clear, after all this time, how Isaac learned his son had left the school.)

A full week after Phillip failed to show up for supper, two nuns pulled Clifford aside. His parents were waiting for him at the front door of St. Mary’s. “I noticed my mother was crying and my dad had tears,” Clifford recalls, his own eyes red and wet. “That’s when I found out my brother was gone.”

Catherine’s parents came to town to pick her up, too. Once back at the reserve, she watched as some of the men donned their warmest clothing before setting out to recover Roderick. With Phillip’s body found, they were pretty sure her brother was somewhere nearby. “They tried to tell my dad not to participate,” Catherine remembers. “But he said: ‘That’s my son. I’m going to find him.’ ”

After they did find him, Catherine and her mother went to the Kenora hospital to officially identify Roderick’s body. He was lying on a steel table, still thawing out. “My mom just held him,” she remembers. “And I touched him, too, on his head. He was still frozen and he looked like he’d been crying. I hoped it was just ice melting from his face.”

The rock where Roderick's body was found near the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
The rock where Roderick’s body was found near the community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The post-mortem exams were performed by Dr. Peter D. Pan, the same pathologist who analyzed Chanie Wenjack’s corpse four autumns earlier. Obtained by Maclean’s, the six-page autopsy reports are typewritten, and littered with the kind of matter-of-fact language that’s typical of such reports. Both boys weighed 80 lb. Roderick was four foot 11; Bean was two inches shorter. Beside the heading “Stomach and Contents,” both reports contain the same word: empty.

The local coroner was Dr. S.M. Burris, and he wasted little time issuing warrants for an inquest. “I have concluded that an inquest should be held to determine if there was negligence in these deaths,” the doctor wrote, on Dec. 10, 1970. “It would seem that the parents or at least responsible relatives or friends should have been told that the boys were walking toward home, so that a search for them could have been started in time to find them alive. The OPP should have been alerted to their disappearance at once since it was most likely that 12-year-old children would be trying to go home.”

The inquest was held a week before Christmas, and lasted just one day. Numerous witnesses testified, among them Father Lebleu; Clark Day, the Indian Affairs guidance counsellor; and Bean’s father, Isaac Kabestra. There are no transcripts of their testimony, and any audio that was recorded was destroyed years ago, as per policy.

Ultimately, the five-person jury issued eight recommendations, including: that all police forces be alerted if a student doesn’t show up for supper, that an “immediate” search be carried out, and that morning checks be instituted to ensure everyone is accounted for.

The final recommendation should have been obvious: “The personel [sic] at Indian Education should investigate the reasons why the residential students run away.” Such an investigation would not be launched until decades later, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work.

The coroner’s inquest triggered one article in the Kenora Miner and News, but no other media covered the case. If not for a mention in the TRC’s final report, released last year, a Google search of the boys’ names would turn up zero results. As if they never existed.

Behind the scenes, though, the inquest report was shared among various civil servants, and the ensuing letters and memos, retrieved by Maclean’s, range from genuine remorse to well-entrenched stereotype. In one letter dated Feb. 15, 1971, Peter J. Hare, then the district supervisor for Indian Affairs in Kenora, told Robert J. Fox, a senior Ontario bureaucrat, that “most of the coroner’s jury recommendations are being carried out.” He then proceeded to make a claim that none of the official documents support: “The most striking finding of the inquiry was that all groups (and that includes the Indians as well as others) had assumed that as these were two Indian boys they could take care of themselves and therefore it was not necessary to take as quick action. In 99 per cent of such cases this is true and nothing untowards happens. Unfortunately in this case the worst possible results occurred.”

Corrective action was taken, it turns out. For the first time in the history of the residential-school system, Indian Affairs issued strict instructions to agents across the country, “emphasizing the need for residence staff to be very alert during times of severe weather and to take immediate emergency steps when a student is missing.” On March 1, 1971, J.B. Bergevin, then the assistant deputy minister of Indian Affairs, laid out the policy changes in a letter to H.B. Cotnam, Ontario’s supervising coroner. “I earnestly hope that implementation of the foregoing measures will prevent such tragic incidents occurring in future,” his letter concludes.

One more significant memo is stored in the archives of Ontario’s chief coroner. Dated March 5, 1971, and addressed to W. Welldon, the assistant director of the province’s Indian Community Branch, the note mentions the possibility that alcohol contributed to the tragedy. “There are conflicting reports as to whether or not these boys were drinking before they froze and because of their age (12 years old) a blood test for alcohol was not performed when they were found,” the memo reads. “The rumour in the Indian community at Grassy Narrows is that the boys were given or took alcohol from relatives where they spent the night.”

Douglas, Bean’s brother, has heard those rumours. So has Catherine, Roderick’s sister. But the whispers were never nailed down—and whatever the truth, it does nothing to change the fact that the boys, so desperate to get home, were abandoned by every official who should have chased after them. As the memo concedes: “The general attitude in the White community seems to be since these boys were Indian and 12 years old, they would be able to look after themselves and would eventually turn up.”

The correspondence reveals one more gut-wrenching twist: a school had recently opened on the reserve. “Apparently, Roderick Keesick, who was in Grade 4 at Mount Carmel School, had asked to go home a number of times but was refused,” the memo continues. “One way of avoiding this type of situation seems to me to be that if an Indian child is in a boarding school and is not happy there, every effort should be made to return him to his home, especially in the case of Grassy Narrows as there is a grade school which these boys could have attended.”

Steve Fobister, a member of the search team, would visit the rock where Roderick's body was found. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Steve Fobister, a member of the search team, would visit the rock where Roderick’s body was found. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Steve Fobister suffers from the excruciating pain of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and needs a walker to get around. Although he doesn’t know for certain, he is convinced the mercury made him sick. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a white rental car, he directs Maclean’s to a place he used to visit all the time, back when he was much healthier: the rock where Roderick’s body was found. “There it is,” he says, pointing out the window.

The rock is only a few metres from the dirt road, but Steve is too rickety to reach it anymore. He stands beside the car, gripping tightly to the open door.

It is Oct. 4, 2016, the leaves a gorgeous shade of orange and yellow, and in a few hours, Toronto Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion will blast a walk-off, extra-inning home run to win baseball’s American League wildcard game—a shot heard round the nation. Fobister is a diehard Jays fan, too. He only wishes the country would come together in a similar fashion to learn about the dark history of residential schools, and the hard work that still needs to be done to achieve reconciliation.

“I have often said this is the loneliest place in the world,” he says, gazing at the rock. “They should put a plaque here to remember those two boys.” Forty-six years later, Fobister can still see James, wiping the snow off his dead, frozen son.

Roderick’s dad passed away in 2014. Catherine says he never fully recovered from that day, at times turning to booze to numb the pain. Her father did bring her back to St. Mary’s, though—to pick up her belongings. “He almost went after the priest,” she says. “He said to him: ‘You came and got my kids, and you didn’t even look after them.’ ”

Catherine is now a community wellness worker at Grassy Narrows, tasked with helping fellow residents receive the counselling that many so badly need. She has witnessed, more than most, the damage done by residential schools, and how they harmed the generations that followed. “There are still people out there who went through what I did, who still need to be healed,” she says, sitting in her office. “That’s why they can’t get a grip on their lives and why they live in the fast lane.”

Catherine does not have a single photograph of her little brother. She did at one point, but after various moves over the years, the snapshot got lost amid the shuffle. “He is here,” she says, pointing to her heart. “He is always going to be in my memories. I love him, and he knows that.”

Clifford and Douglas do not have a picture of their brother, either. What they do have are the scars, both physical and mental. “I have a hard time explaining my feelings about this situation,” Douglas says, speaking to a stranger about his brother for the first time. “I want to let go and move on, but it’s hard to get past this.”

Sitting beside Douglas at his kitchen table is his dad, Isaac Kabestra. Now in his late seventies, his mind is not what it once was. “You can’t be mad forever,” the elder says, at one point.

Amazingly, Douglas was sent to St. Mary’s after his brother died, only to be abused and humiliated in the same manner Bean had been. He was strapped on the hands when he dared speak his native tongue, or when he showed up late for meals. Once, he says, he started asking questions about what happened to Phillip. “I was confined to a room when I did that,” he says. “I was asking around, and one of the counsellors grabbed me and told me not to bring up those dead people.”

Clifford was forced to return to St. Mary’s, too, but the pain and the anger overwhelmed him. No one ever apologized to his face. And although he had no idea Bean was going to run away—not the slightest clue—he was still crippled with guilt for not protecting him. “I wish I could turn back the clock,” he says. “I should have done something. I do feel it was my responsibility to look after him.”

For years, Clifford paid regular visits to his brother’s grave, engaging in long, one-way conversations. He would tell Bean about the niece and nephew he never got to meet, and how he makes sure to tell them about the wonderful person their uncle was.

Clifford is glad that Canadians will now know his brother’s name, and Roderick’s, even though he thinks it should have happened decades ago. “I want the public to know what happened,” he says. “I’m still going through the hurt every day, and I don’t think there will ever be closure for me.”

More than anything, though, he wishes he could sit with Bean one last time, just for a moment. “I would tell him that I still love him as a brother,” Clifford says. “That’s the one thing I never said when he was here beside me, alive. I wish I could turn back time just to say these things to him.”