WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
It’s a face that Victoria McIntosh worked so hard to block from her mind — Father Arthur Masse.
The retired priest is now facing a charge of sexually assaulting McIntosh more than 50 years ago, when she was just 10 years old and a student at the Fort Alexander residential school in Sagkeeng First Nation, in eastern Manitoba.
“I remember that smile,” said McIntosh. “At first, he was nice.… He was soft in his mannerism, but at the same time he reminded me of a snake —he would just slither.”
McIntosh, 63, is speaking out for the first time about what happened to her more than 50 years ago. She says she’s tired of keeping it a secret and living with the shame of what happened.
“When I got older, I just put it away — I put it away in my mind. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to think about a lot of the other things that I witnessed there, because I felt guilty.”
Masse was charged last week with indecent assault of a child who was 10 at the time. RCMP say the abuse occurred between 1968 and 1970.
RCMP did not identify the girl, but McIntosh says it was her.
She says she remembers Masse always waiting outside the girl’s bathroom, which is one of the areas of the school where she alleges she was assaulted.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I go to the washroom when I need to go to the washroom, I hope he’s not in there.'”
Another residential school survivor, who contacted RCMP after hearing about the charge against Masse, alleges she too was assaulted by the priest when he took her to the washroom.
Since last week’s announcement, RCMP say others have come forward with new allegations of assault. They would not say how many, or specify which schools the complainants were forced to attend.
According to records held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Masse taught at three Manitoba residential schools: Pine Creek, from 1960 to 1966, Fort Alexander from 1966 to 1969 and Brandon from 1970 to 1971.
McIntosh says as a young girl, she didn’t understand why she was sexually assaulted, and thought it had to have something to do with her abuser being a priest.
“‘What gave you the right? Because you … talk for God? That’s what I thought as a kid — he speaks for God and I shouldn’t say anything,” said McIntosh.
When she was 12 years old, she moved with her family to Red Lake, Ont., but her time at Fort Alexander residential school continued to haunt her.
“I would have nightmares about a face, seeing a face, and I would wake up,” McIntosh said. “The last memory I had … was him coming at me.”
In her teen years, McIntosh says she developed suicidal tendencies and alienated herself from those around her. She developed an eating disorder and started cutting herself.
Masse is now 92, but his age shouldn’t be a factor, McIntosh says.
“Someone has to be accountable.… Why should that 10-year-old carry it?”
Police arrested Masse at his home in Winnipeg last week, following a decade-long investigation. He was released with conditions and will appear in court in Powerview, Man., on July 20.
RCMP say allegations of sexual abuse at the school were first brought to their attention in 2010, and they launched a criminal investigation a year later.
More than 80 officers were part of the investigation, speaking to over 700 people across North America and gathering 75 witness and victim statements, RCMP say.
“The question may be asked: ‘Why with all this work was there one charge laid?” Manitoba RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said at a news conference last week.
“Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, many of the victims are not able to participate in the investigation, whether that be for mental or physical health reasons or because the victim is now deceased.”
McIntosh says aside from telling a few family members, she had mostly kept what happened to her a secret, until police approached her in 2013.
“I had to learn to trust them and say, ‘OK, please don’t betray me,'” she said. “Just hear what I have to say, and that’s all I wanted. Whatever was going to happen … all I wanted was to be heard.”
‘It takes just 1 person to make the trail’
After carrying the burden of her secret for decades, McIntosh says she’s finally ready to shed the shame of what happened to her.
“What really set the first step for me was my grandkids, especially my granddaughters,” said McIntosh.
“I looked at her, and [thought], I wouldn’t know how to react if somebody did this to her.”
McIntosh is from the Turtle Clan, and says a story her grandmother told her explains why she is now coming forward with her story.
“We were looking at this big giant turtle crossing the road, and she said in our language, ‘That turtle makes [the] way … [so] that you don’t have to be scared anymore — you don’t have to be nervous. We lived the hard part already,” said McIntosh.
“It takes just one person to make the trail.”
Now, when McIntosh talks about her experience at Fort Alexander residential school, she keeps the jacket she wore on her first day nearby.
But that jacket never actually made it into the school with her.
She recalls a nun meeting her at the entrance when her mother brought her to the school.
“She said to my mom, ‘We’ll take care of your kids now,’ and I remember her saying, ‘Oh, sauvages,'” said McIntosh.
The nun took off McIntosh’s jacket and threw it to her mom, who then held onto it for years, she said. It was only when the jacket came back to her that she told her mother what happened.
“All I said to her was, ‘It’s not your fault,’ and all that animosity — of course I was angry with my mom, but it went [away] right there,” said McIntosh.
“I said, ‘I want to get to know you again, because this intergenerational trauma, it’s real.'”
She hopes the rest of Sagkeeng First Nation can start to heal, just like she and her mom did.
“When I look at the picture of the residential school … it looks like a big box of ugly secrets. That’s what I see, and now it’s falling down.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.