In light of the 215 children who were recently discovered in undocumented graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, many survivors have come forward to share their experiences at the institution. 

One of those survivors is Dennis Saddleman, an Indigenous poet from the Nicola Valley who is known as the ‘Word Warrior’. 

Saddleman attended the Residential School for eleven years, beginning when he was six years old. Unlike some children, who were gathered up from their homes and taken to the schools in groups, Saddleman arrived with his parents at the beginning of the school year. 

“My parents brought me over, my dad drove, and I sat in between mom and dad,” said Saddleman. 

“I looked over, and my mom, she was looking out the window, I could see tears coming down her face. It must be the worst thing to let your child go, especially to Residential School.”

Saddleman’s mother had also attended Residential School for three years in the 1920s, an experience she did not discuss with her son before he himself ended up at the school, which was run by the Catholic Church. 

Particularly painful to Saddleman’s parents must have been the possibility that they were losing their son forever, knowing that many children did not return from Residential School. The Saddlemans had already faced family tragedy. Of their eleven children, seven died before Dennis was born, leaving him and his three older sisters, who also attended KIRS. 

“They didn’t say almost next to nothing about their experience at Residential School, especially my youngest sister,” said Saddleman. 

“I think she took it pretty hard… I think something must have happened to her there, but she wouldn’t tell me. She drank lots, the booze got her really violent.” 

Saddleman was not terribly apprehensive as a child of six years old. This seemed to him as if it could be an adventure. 

“I was excited at first, but when I got there, we were in front of this huge building, and I was just a small child,” said Saddleman. 

“That building scared me, and that’s why I wrote about that building. I called it a monster because it had lots of window eyes and red brick flesh, and right in the middle was the double doors, that was the mouth.”

He described “black creatures” which came from the mouth of that monster, to retrieve him and all of the other children who were being taken into the school’s care.  

“Later I found out they were priests and nuns and Oblate brothers,” said Saddleman. 

“They were strange, and I got scared. Their faces were pale, and some were thin. There was just some white for their face and then all black, with a white collar. I called them the black creatures. My mom handed me over, and I looked back from the cement steps and my mom walked away and my dad walked away without saying goodbye, without looking back. Then they took me inside the building and when I went through the door, that’s when the monster ate me up. I spent my next eleven years there.” 

Saddleman and five other boys were taken upstairs to the dormitory where they were ordered to remove their clothes. 

“We were cold, and we were wondering why we were naked,” said Saddleman. 

“Next thing we knew this Oblate brother, he was our supervisor, he was touching us all over and touching our privates. I felt really uncomfortable, I was trying to push him away. They said they were trying to look for lice and sores on us.” 

Following this inspection, the boys were given government-issued clothes and shoes, which were poorly made and uncomfortable. 

“They were supposed to look after us, but the government didn’t give very much money to the schools,” said Saddleman.

“So, with very little money our clothes were cheap… they were all the same colour, like you see in a prison. We all wore the same clothes.” 

All students, boys and girls, had their hair cut short. For an Indigenous person, long hair may be a spiritual or symbolic thing, and to cut the hair severs that spiritual or cultural connection. 

“You can just imagine them just cutting it off and throwing it in the garbage.” 

The students were separated into three groups: Juniors, Intermediates and Seniors, depending on age. Girls and boys kept to separate dormitories. 

“In the dormitory, a lot of us boys couldn’t sleep because we were lonely and sad, and homesick, we were away from our parents,” explained Saddleman. 

“So, there’s a lot of boys crying and crying, and it made me feel the same and I was crying. I’d get up from my bed and go to the window and I’d look towards home, I could see the moon sometimes. I asked the moon, ‘Hello moon, can you see my mom and dad?’ And the moon never said anything, all it did was just hang in the sky.”

Even if siblings were attending KIRS at the same time, they were not permitted to socialize and spend time together. Children were forbidden from practicing their culture, there was no dancing or drumming. 

“I spoke my language once and they put a bar of soap in my mouth, because I spoke my language,” said Saddleman. 

“Really, it was just like the world turned upside down.” 

If traditional foods such as huckleberries or dried fish were brought to the school, the supervisors would confiscate it, leaving students to eat ‘mush’, and macaroni, both of which were lumpy and tasteless and sometimes burned. 

“The food in there was yucky and terrible, some of it not even fit for a dog,” said Saddleman, who recalled many children were thin and malnourished, eating only enough to stay alive.

“The government didn’t give enough money to the schools, so our food was like slop, I guess people would say.” 

Each dormitory or group had a ‘supervisor’, typically an Oblate brother, who was in charge of anywhere from 30 to 100 children. Many had no experience with children and were not suited for what the position entailed. 

“The supervisor we had was meaner than a mad dog… for the littlest thing you’d do, like chewing gum or something, you’d get severely punished,” Saddleman remembered, describing a strap approximately one foot long by three inches wide and a half inch thick. 

“When they punish you, it seemed like they don’t care how hard they hit you with the strap. When you do get strapped, they don’t fool around. You have your hand out and you can imagine the whack. He likes to see you cry, and if you don’t cry and he doesn’t see any tears, he’ll tell you to turn your hand over and he’ll strap the back of your hand. And if you still don’t cry and he still doesn’t see any tears, you’ll pull your pants down and he’ll strap your bottom and if your back is exposed and your shirt gets lifted up, he’ll hit you there, too. Your back gets welted and red.”

The reasons for punishments varied, and were sometimes doled out even if the children were innocent. If a supervisor or nun or priest suspected somebody had done something wrong but didn’t know who, and no one confessed, then all of the children in that group would be strapped. 

“Every day we live in fear, we wonder if we can make it through one day without getting strapped,” said Saddleman. 

“Or they’d hit you in the head with a knuckle, or they’d backhand you right across the mouth, slap you in the face with their open hand. They kick you in the behind, sometimes if you’re on the ground they’d kick you in the ribs.” 

Saddleman was also sexually abused by an Oblate brother, beginning when he was around eight years of age. 

“That really made me feel dirty and ashamed,” said Saddleman.

“I went to the river, I wanted to jump in. I asked the river to take me away, but the river didn’t say anything to me, all it did was just flow and flow, so I went back to the school and suffered more.” 

Looking back at pictures of children in Residential Schools, KIRS and others, he remembers that when photos were taken, they were all told to smile, whether they wanted to or not. 

“When they take pictures of you, they tell us to smile,” said Saddleman. 

“You look at the pictures and some people don’t realize that behind that smile is fear.” 

The times when Saddleman was able to return home to his family on the Coldwater Reserve were the happiest times of his childhood. 

“I was born in Merritt at the old hospital, I was raised on Coldwater reserve for the first six years,” explained Saddleman. 

“I grew up with my grandfather. Every day he spoke our language, so I got pretty good at speaking my language.”

Saddleman’s grandfather died when he was nine. His death, and the unanswered questions, inspired Saddleman to write one of the poems nearest to his heart, called “Where Do You Go?” 

I’m sad Grampa

Where do you go?

The poem begins, and follows Saddleman’s search for his missing grandfather. 

“I remember I was playing with my toys beside my grandpa’s feet and my grandpa, he got up, he put on his coat and his hat,” Saddleman recalls.

“I asked him in our language, ‘grandpa where are you going?’ He said, ‘Oh grandson, don’t worry, I’ll just be gone for two or three days. I’ll be back’. The next thing I remember a red pickup truck came to the house and when I looked in the back of the truck there was a blue box. I had a funny feeling, but also I didn’t quite understand what was happening.” 

Saddleman snuck down from the upstairs room he shared with his grandfather, peeking into the box, which turned out to be a casket in which his grandfather was laid out. 

“I think they were getting ready for the burial, so the lid of the casket was open and I looked over and peeked in there and hey, my grandpa,” said Saddleman, who tried to rouse his grandfather, not realizing he had passed. 

“I said, come on grandpa, get up, you don’t sleep here you’ve got a bed upstairs.” 

I looked for you at your favourite fishing spot the salmon didn’t see you

I looked for you at your favourite hunting grounds the deer didn’t see you

The poem concludes with Saddleman finding his grandfather never really left, but was always in his heart. 

Saddleman first began writing in 1987, 20 years after he had left the Residential School. At that time, he returned to school to upgrade his education, finding that he only had the equivalent of a fifth-grade education despite eleven years at KIRS.

His teacher assigned a project which they would have two months to write. Saddleman chose to write about pow wows, and so he went on the pow wow trail asking the dancers and drummers questions and compiling six pages which he then submitted to his teacher. 

“About a week later she called me over to her desk, and I thought ‘uh oh, I’m in trouble,” said Saddleman. 

“She sat me down and she had my paper, she said, ‘this is really awesome, Dennis… why don’t you become a writer? You’re an awesome writer, look at your paper.”

Saddleman was so unused to praise, recalling that the ‘teachers’ at KIRS had called him stupid and were never satisfied with his work, that he initially believed the teacher was teasing him, despite her awarding a mark of 49.5 out of a possible 50. 

However, five years later while taking college preparatory classes, Saddleman found out that En’owkin Centre in Penticton offered a writing program. He enrolled, and the teachers, seeing his talent, pushed him to do his best.  

“Open up your heart, open up your mind, you can do it,” they told him. 

Later, Saddleman attended two of the seven national Truth and Reconciliation Commission reconciliation events. One in Kamloops and one in Vancouver, where he spoke publicly about the horrors he had endured at Residential School. 

Present were religious leaders, including nuns and priests like those who had overseen the day-to-day operations of KIRS. 

“There must have been almost 200 of them there, so I was there just telling my stories, and a lot of them had tears coming down their faces,” Saddleman recalls. 

Unable to attend the event in Edmonton, Saddleman stayed home. 

“Next thing I knew, I was getting text messages and emails and phone calls, and I thought what’s going on?” Saddleman said. 

“Well, CBC Toronto, they had aired my ‘Monster’ poem across Canada. So, a lot of people heard it on the radio, whether they were driving or in the kitchen or something, they heard it. So, I was getting messages, and I thought, ‘gee, my poem’s getting famous without me. That poem went a long way.”

Monster, which Saddleman wrote specifically about KIRS, has since been included in the curriculum of several colleges and universities. 










Saddleman’s poem goes on to describe how he felt being consumed by this Monster, but ultimately, coming to a place of forgiveness. 

I was looking at an old Residential School who became my elder of my memories 

I was looking at a tall building with four stories

Stories of hope

Stories of dreams

Stories of renewal

And stories of tomorrow  

Since then, Saddleman has toured North America speaking about his experiences at KIRS, educating people around BC as well as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, and Honolulu. 

“I consider my writing a healing tool,” said Saddleman.

“I’m going to go out and I’m going to tell everybody my story, read my poem. I want to educate and heal the people with my poems and my stories. Reach out to the non-natives so that they’ll be able to have some kind of idea of what the Residential School was about. Reach out to the young people, the inter-generational survivors, so they can maybe have an understanding of what their parents and grandparents went through. That’s what I was doing. That’s what I had in my mind.” 

For Saddleman, the process of creativity is akin to godliness, and he thinks back to a time when he had no friends or family near, and the characters he created to keep him company. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he has always been a storyteller. 

“A long time ago I didn’t have any playmates when I was living up Coldwater,” said Saddleman. “So, I created these characters, I ended up playing with the river child and the mountain child, I even had, when I went to sleep, the dream child. And at night you can see the moon child, all these characters. It goes back to the time the good lord created the world, he’s the Creator, he gave us the gift of being creative. Words can heal or words can hurt… You have a connection to everything that’s out there, whether it’s living or non-living everything’s got a spirit, so you have connections to all the spirits out there.”

Connecting with his creativity, his spirit and his inner child, helped Saddleman to turn his own life around. 

“When I drank a long time ago it was really, really bad,” said Saddleman. 

“I drank Lysol, I slept in the back alleys. To save all my money for a bottle I’d go behind a grocery store because I’d rather eat my food from the dumpster, that’s how bad it was. I was really down at the bottom… I hit the bottom. I didn’t realize I was carrying all this hate and all this violence and rage. I was carrying it and I didn’t know I was carrying all this, and I was hurting my family and my friends, I was hurting the community,” Saddleman continued. 

“I didn’t have any dreams or hopes… I was so angry and enraged, I stabbed myself in the ribcage with a hunting knife. The doctor saved me, he stitched me up, but I did lots of bleeding. I took a gun, put it under my chin, I wanted to commit suicide. So many things were in my head; the sex abuse, the Residential School calling me dumb and stupid and ugly, all the shame and everything I had. And then I sobered up, that was really hard, to turn my life around.” 

Saddleman has been clean and sober now for nearly 41 years. He reflects on the time he spent in Residential School, and at rock bottom, thankful that he survived and has been able to share his work with the world. 

“What we went through, all the struggles with the residential school and the drugs and alcohol, a lot of people didn’t make it,” said Saddleman. 

“A lot of people passed away at the Residential Schools, like the 215 children they’re talking about. A lot of people committed suicide, and a lot of people died from alcohol and drugs, I’m still here. I survived. It’s like the good lord gave me a purpose to be here, to use my voice and share what I went through in the Residential School, to give people an idea of what Residential School was like, give my positive side in the book, the healing and the education. You can rise out of the ashes; you can light that little spark and the fire will burn.” 

Encouraging this spark to grow is what Indigenous People’s Day means to Saddleman. 

“Before, we were in the light,” explained Saddleman. 

“Then the residential schools came, and we were in the darkness, and now many of us came out of the darkness to be back in the light again… we had to reclaim our lives and learn who we are again and where we came from. Understand our courage, our strengths, they’re the bones that give us the shape of who we are. We’ve come out of the darkness, and we picked up the broken pieces, we have hope and we have dreams now.”

Between 1831 and 1996 there were 139 Residential Schools in Canada. It is estimated that over 150,000 children attended these schools. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died in the Residential School system, from disease, malnourishment, abuse and neglect.