A small crowd of people filtered through the doors of MD council chambers on April 12, chattering excitedly, filling the room with more noise than it had seen in years, to witness local resident Dave Friesen receive a certificate of appreciation for his significant contributions to society and his service to the RCMP.
Flanked by friends and family members, Dave Friesen, age 93, made his way to the front of the room and accepted the certificate from Reeve Rick Lemire, as onlookers applauded and cameras flashed. Coun. Harold Hollingshead, who first proposed the idea of the ceremony, shook his hand.
Friesen was an exceptional RCMP officer, dedicating his life to pursuing justice for victims of residential schools, at a time when many were content to ignore uncomfortable truths. He was a trailblazer, who, back in the late 1950s, started one of the first-known investigations into a residential school predator — possibly the only such RCMP investigation made prior to the 1980s.
In 1957, Friesen was transferred to Watson Lake, Yukon, where he investigated cases of sexual abuse involving a staff member at a residential school in northern British Columbia and Indigenous boys. He was relentless in his pursuit of justice, and thanks to his steadfast efforts, a dozen survivors were able to win their lawsuit against the school.
“Sixty-seven years later, these boys are vindicated. They spoke the truth and the truth came out. I appreciate what this council has accepted. Thank you very much,” said Friesen, addressing the crowd at council chambers.
Lower Post Indian Residential School
Friesen, a corporal, arrived in Watson Lake with his wife, Pat, newborn daughter Shannon and three-year-old daughter Trish. The newly built Lower Post Indian Residential School was located half an hour south of the community. Although it lay just across the border in northern B.C., it still fell within his jurisdiction.
It was run from 1951 to 1975 by the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who operated 48 residential schools across the country, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where 751 unmarked graves were discovered, and the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the probable gravesites of 200 Indigenous children were found, both last year.
At the time, Friesen was already well aware of the poverty many Indigenous Peoples faced, and he had no doubt that powerful institutions such as government and churches were seeking to erase Indigenous ways of life through cultural and religious assimilation.
Growing up in the Fort Garry district of Winnipeg in the 1930s, he had many Métis friends and witnessed the ill treatment that befell them.
From 1952 to 1957, he worked in Whitehorse, and prior to that in rural Alberta near Cardston — communities where he came to believe the church had more sway and influence than the police. Friesen attributes this power imbalance to the fact that RCMP officers were often transferred frequently and were never able to spend much time in one place.
“We would spend two, three years at any detachment. The priests and the mission, they were there for 35, 40 years,” he explains.
Friesen’s daughter Shannon, who grew up in remote northern communities has similar recollections.
“The church was the lord and master of the community. They were the law. They decided what did and did not happen in the community,” she says.
So great was the church’s influence, that Friesen deliberately avoided attending services because he didn’t want local Indigenous people to associate him with it.
From the outside, Lower Post looked like any other school: a modest rectangular-shaped brick building with stark white paint. But inside, children faced abuse and ill treatment.
At the time, over 100 Indigenous students attended, coming from 40 different communities across the Yukon and northern B.C. The area was home to Kaska Dena, an Athabascan-speaking ethnolinguistic First Nations group made up of five local bands.
Friesen had no way of knowing that abuse within residential schools was a Canada-wide issue at that time, but he was suspicious of one of the school’s employees, who he believed was a predator.
The employee was 34-year-old Ben Garand, a lay brother who was the boys’ supervisor. As Friesen acquainted himself with the community, he caught wind of Garand’s disreputable reputation. Unsavoury rumours had led locals to nickname him “Backdoor Benny,” and, Friesen noted, he was almost always in the company of Indigenous boys, offering them rides in his Plymouth.
Friesen trailed Garand in his cruiser, monitoring all his activities, and for a while he was never able to charge him with anything. Opportunity came when he observed Garand leave the local liquor store with a few Indigenous boys in his car and head out on the highway towards his cottage in northern B.C.
Friesen followed them, planning to charge Garand for transporting alcohol across a provincial boundary. When he arrived at the cottage, he found Garand and four Indigenous boys with multiple bottles of liquor, and alcohol-related charges were laid against Garand.
In the days that followed, he interviewed the boys. Most of them were reluctant to talk, all save one, who recounted enough information for Friesen to lay a charge of indecent assault against Garand.
Friesen expanded his investigation, interviewing more than 30 students at the school. Many confirmed the rumours that Garand would often assault young boys at his cottage.
Once he had gathered enough information, he paid a visit to Father Yvon Levaque, principal of the school, to discuss the investigation. Friesen expected him to be sympathetic to his cause, but says that much to his surprise, Levaque admitted he’d known about the sexual abuse all along, but instead of reporting Garand to the police, the school had decided to fire him and keep things quiet.
“I wanted to protect the church and the school,” said Levaque, according to Mr. Friesen’s recollection.
Friesen was furious and stormed out of the school.
“That was my only interview with Father Levaque,” he says.
From that point forward, whenever Garand was released on bail, Friesen would charge him and lock him up again. By 1958, Garand had four counts of indecent assault against him.
A trial to convict Garand of sexual abuse was scheduled in Prince Rupert, B.C., for Dec. 9, 1958. The boys Friesen had found in the cabin planned to testify. Friesen and the Crown both thought there was a solid case against Garand, but the boys suddenly and inexplicably retracted their testimonies and the case was closed.
“One after the other, they went up to the stand and wouldn’t testify,” Friesen remembers.
Even more puzzling to Friesen was the fact that none of the boys’ parents would talk either. He began to suspect that Levaque or someone else at the school had threatened them to keep them quiet, but he was never able to prove it.
“A lot of people, they just turned a blind eye without a second thought,” Shannon recalls. But with her father, “it was eating him up and it bothered him for years.”
Memories follow as Friesen moves on
Friesen and his family eventually left Watson Lake and served in many different Arctic communities, including Coppermine, Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, but he never forgot the boys and the case continued to haunt him. He maintained a mistrust of church officials whenever they interacted with local Indigenous groups.
He remembers one incident in particular, in 1964, where three Indigenous boys escaped while being transferred to the Missionary of Holman Island in the Northwest Territories. Friesen was asked to find them, but he wanted no part in it and asked the church to send them home to their families.
“I said the best thing you can do is to get a hold of the diocese in Inuvik, charter a plane and pick the boys up and send them back,” he remembers.
In the end, the boys never returned to the school.
While living in Coppermine, N.W.T. — now called Kugluktuk — he found out that the local Anglican church was bribing Indigenous children by offering them skates in exchange for attending religious services. Friesen appealed to his friends in Manitoba and his brother-in-law in Saskatchewan to help him procure hockey equipment and he built his own rink, so the Indigenous children could skate without the pressure of religious assimilation.
Friesen and his family had a special relationship with local Inuit people.
“We would walk into a tent and they’d feed us and they’d entertain us,” Shannon says. “They’d tell us all these spiritual stories. They’re very spiritual people and you could feel it. They have this intuition built into them.”
Shannon recalls that her father would often be gone for weeks at a time, journeying across the Arctic by dog sled to police remote communities, and that the shaman, whose name was James, always knew when he was about to return.
“He’d stand on the beach and I’d say, ‘Dad’s coming!’ He knew and within an hour you’d see dad’s dog sled,” she says.
Friesen retired in 1973 and moved to the Cowley area shortly after, putting down roots at a farm in the Porcupine Hills, which he affectionately named Dunmovin.
An opportunity for justice
He never expected to revisit Garand’s case, but in December 1995, just before Christmas, he opened the Calgary Herald, only to find out that a lawyer from Whitehorse had launched a lawsuit on behalf of 12 Indigenous men who had attended the school in their youth. The lawyer was appealing for help to locate the documents of the original investigation.
Friesen contacted the lawyer and informed him to communicate with the Watson Lake RCMP in order to find the investigation documents. The RCMP responded to the lawyer within hours, and told him they already had a substantial file on Garand.
Const. Paul Richards, who was stationed in Watson Lake, told Friesen that two people had come forward in the early 1990s, naming Garand and another man — George Maczynski, who had taught at the school prior to Friesen’s arrival — as sexual offenders.
The two men were charged and a trial was scheduled in Terrace, B.C., in December 1995. Maczynski was sentenced to 17 years in prison for 28 counts of indecent assault and gross indecency, among many charges. Garand died of illness while imprisoned at Mountain Institution Penitentiary, and never faced trial.
While news of Garand’s death provided Friesen with little satisfaction, the lawsuit went ahead. The 12 Lower Post survivors sued the government, the church, Levaque, Garand and others for the abuse they faced, and the evidence that Friesen had meticulously compiled proved instrumental in the case.
It was one of the earliest known residential school lawsuits in Canadian history and the survivors were henceforth known as the Trailblazers.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that Mr. Friesen found out why the boys had withheld their testimonies. Patrick White, a journalist for the Globe and Mail who investigated the court case, found that the boys were told that if they took the stand, their lives would be threatened.
The Lower Post Indian Residential School ceased operation in 1975, after which it became a community administration building, but it was only last year that the Kaska Nation began its journey to healing.
Harlan Schilling, deputy chief of the Daylu Dena council, oversaw the demolition of the building in a ceremony last summer. The community has plans to build a new space on the grounds — a multi-use facility where locals can enjoy Indigenous cultural activities like beading, traditional storytelling and tea with the elders, and where survivors can heal and youth can learn the history of their people.
Kaska First Nation gave the local RCMP gifts of beaded orange-and-black tags that read Dene Ts’i-Négedī Koą, meaning “Helping People Build.” It replaced Kaska’s former pejorative for the RCMP, which was “takers of children.”
This message was restated on the certificate of appreciation the MD council gave to Mr. Friesen.
“Yours was one of the first steps to take us from where we were, to where we stand today, and will not be forgotten,” it read. “We have moved from ‘takers of children’ to ‘Helping People Build,’ because of individuals such as yourself. Well done sir.”
Editor’s note: Dave Friesen passed away June 10, 2022, three weeks after this article was published. View obituary.
He was also posthumously awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal in December 2022. Read article.
This article was first published in the May 18 issue of Shootin’ the Breeze.