A school they called Alcatraz: Survivor reflects on sisters' deaths at Kuper Island Residential School

·5 min read
Survivor Karen McCallum, 67, whose two older half-sisters Beverly and Patricia Joseph were presumed drowned trying to leave the school, is still looking for answers. (Jodie Martinson/CBC - image credit)
Survivor Karen McCallum, 67, whose two older half-sisters Beverly and Patricia Joseph were presumed drowned trying to leave the school, is still looking for answers. (Jodie Martinson/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Surrounded by water, B.C.'s Kuper Island Residential School had such a notorious reputation, survivors call it "Alcatraz" — after the maximum security prison in San Francisco Bay where no prisoner could escape.

But unlike Alcatraz, the stories out of the school, and the motivations and circumstances of the young children who tried to leave are harder to uncover.

Survivor Karen McCallum, 67, whose older half-sisters Beverly and Patricia Joseph were presumed drowned trying to escape, is still looking for answers.

"There was obviously something going on [at the school] that they did not want to be there," McCallum told CBC.

Duncan McCue/CBC
Duncan McCue/CBC

Located on what is now known as Penelakut Island, off the coast of Chemainus on Vancouver Island and surrounded by the Salish Sea, the only way to and from the school was by ferry, commanded by the Catholic priests and brothers who worked there.

In the new CBC podcast Kuper Island, survivor Belvie Brebber, a cousin of Beverly and Patricia, describes experiences of sexual abuse at the school, which operated from 1889 to 1975.

"It wasn't only me that [it] was done [to]," Brebber said. "This Brother was raping them all."

The school was demolished in the 1980s.

Kuper Island is an eight-part series about four former students forced to attend the institution: three who survived and one who didn't. Host Duncan McCue pieces their stories together through historic records, police investigations and coroner's reports, in addition to interviews with community members and former school officials.

LISTEN | Kuper Island Episode 1: A School They Called Alcatraz:

Warned against escaping

When Brebber was ordered to attend the school against her family's wishes, she says her mother warned against trying to escape.

Over the years, many children tried to, clinging to logs or small boats — but few were successful. Student Emile William, who escaped in 1907, drowned. His body wasn't found until spring.

In the 1940s and 1950s, government officials recorded concerns about the large number of runaways from the area.

McCallum, who was four when her sisters died, says she could only imagine what prompted them to make the dangerous journey.

She says she remembers them as the type of siblings who would let their little sister nestle in their soft, long hair as they held her on their laps.

"I see other people with brothers and sisters and how they can call them up ... there's nobody else around me," said McCallum. "[It's] a very deep loss."

Deaths found 'accidental'

The deaths of the Joseph sisters attracted attention from local media.

They reported it was a Friday night in January 1959 when Beverly and Patricia Joseph, age 12 and 14, slipped from their beds, snuck down to the waterfront and stole a six-foot canoe.

Though their disappearance was noted in the morning, it was only reported to police in the afternoon. Two days later, Patricia's body washed ashore. Beverly was never found.

They were presumed drowned.

Nanaimo Daily News
Nanaimo Daily News

The media speculated on why the girls would want to leave the school in the dead of winter and make their way across the frigid and gusty open ocean. One theory was they were trying to attend a dance; another was they were trying to see their mother.

An inquest was scheduled in the days following their deaths.

Around that time, letters from Kuper Island's principal expressed concern to Catholic officials about the impact the inquest might have on the school's reputation.

But little was revealed: the coroner who examined Patricia's body found nothing unusual and considered her death a drowning.

An oblate who worked at the school told the jury the sisters had arrived only a few months earlier and they "seemed happy and well-adjusted to the school life."

The jury took 15 minutes to find Patricia's death was "accidental with no blame attached to anyone."

WATCH | The haunting legacy of Kuper Island Residential School:

The sisters were just two of the 167 children who died at Kuper Island identified by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. In July 2021, the Penelakut Tribe, on whose land the school was built, found unmarked graves in the area. They're working on identifying more.

The school has been subject to police investigations, including the province-wide B.C. RCMP Native Indian Residential School Task Force between 1994 and 2003. Future episodes of Kuper Island explore the investigations and court battles.

Enduring grief

McCallum says she remembers running up to her sister's casket during the funeral.

"I remember yelling at them, 'You can't take her,'" McCallum said. "That's my sister. Don't take her away ... and I remember somebody grabbing me and trying to take me away."

She says she remembers how her heartbroken mother turned to alcohol afterward, and how they became homeless, sleeping on cardboard under streetlights in Duncan.

"She wasn't able to ever get back to herself," McCallum said. "She never really got over losing them, ever."

Jodie Martinson/CBC
Jodie Martinson/CBC

A few years later McCallum herself was forced to attend Kuper Island, and was ferried across the same waters that took her sisters' lives.

She says there was one bright spot: attending the institution connected her with her long-lost father who worked near the school. Donald Thomas Seymour, who himself had been caught trying to escape Kuper Island as a young boy, visited his daughter every Friday.

They lost touch after McCallum left the school but reconnected again later in life. Neither spoke of their experiences at Kuper Island.

"We had some good years together after that ... he never spoke of Kuper Island. So I don't think I would want to remember him that way. I just want to remember the happiness that he had," she said.

McCallum says feeling robbed of time and connection with her sisters remains fresh to this day — along with the mystery behind what prompted them to leave.

"I just wish we had more time. But we didn't. That was taken away from us."

New episodes of Kuper Island air Tuesday.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered 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.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting