Vancouver Sun

Cold and alone


On a frigid night in October 1969, 10-year-old Bobby Bird disappeare­d from the Timber Bay Indian Residentia­l School. In the years that followed, the family clung to rumours Bobby had been spotted in Regina, Edmonton or the northern United States. Eventually, they simply hoped to find his body. Decades later, some of that mystery has been solved. It took an observant hunter, a dogged RCMP investigat­or and a family who refused to forget about him. Jason Warick of Postmedia News was invited to a family feast honouring Bobby’s spirit. This is his story.

An elder draws a long breath of smoke and passes the pipe around a wide circle. Others whisper Cree prayers. Young helpers then serve round after round of vegetable and rabbit soups, dried moose, bannock with chokecherr­y paste, rice pudding, fruit, candy, juice and coffee to the dozens sitting crosslegge­d on mats at the Battleford Indian and Métis Friendship Centre.

Some chat in small groups about the weather, their children or Bobby Bird, the 10- year- old boy that has brought them all there. Others sit in silence.

More than two hours later, every morsel of remaining food is carefully packed in plastic containers and boxes. Everyone leaves with arms full of leftovers.

“That went really well,” one of Bobby’s sisters, Angelique Masuskapeo, said with a smile as the parking lot full of pickup trucks emptied.

The feast was an offering to Bobby’s spirit. The family has never told his story publicly. The traditiona­l Cree ceremony was their way of asking his permission.

“We’ll be talking about him, so we want to tell him to keep resting,” Angelique said.

“It’s cleared the path,” added Don Bird, Bobby’s cousin. The Great Spirit and other “old ones” will now look favourably on them.

Bobby Bird grew up on the family trap line with his older sisters and cousins at Lynx Lake, 500 kilometres north of Saskatoon.

Don Bird, now a 61- yearold provincial court judge in Meadow Lake, remembers snaring rabbits with Bobby and their grandfathe­r.

“He was a really good kid — outgoing with lots of energy,” Don said.

The Birds and other “trapline kids” were sent to Timber Bay, 200 kilometres to the south. Located just east of Prince Albert National Park, the school and adjacent residence housed Cree and Métis children from La Ronge, Montreal Lake and other points throughout northern Saskatchew­an. The conditions were severe.

Any student caught speaking Cree would be lashed with a threshing belt, Don said. They were forced to chop wood and work in the garden to the point of exhaustion. Children couldn’t go home for the summer until they’d met their production quota.

Don Bird doesn’t think Bobby was sexually abused, but others were not so lucky.

“It was incredibly strict. It’s hard for people to truly appreciate what that life was like,” he recalled. “I see (former students) now in my courtroom all the time — loners, people who can’t parent or cope.”

In the fall of 1969, Bobby began complainin­g to classmates about the horrible conditions.

“The leaves were still on the trees, but it was cold,” classmate Nolan Henderson recalled. “Many kids were lonesome. Bobby wanted to get home.”

One friend related to Angelique the last conversati­on he’d had with Bobby. Bobby told him he couldn’t take it anymore.

When Bobby went missing in October, school officials assumed he’d soon return. Other students went back home to Montreal Lake Cree Nation, but that was nearby. Bobby’s home was a world away and the journey dangerous. Two other Timber Bay students who had once tried to walk home to La Ronge died along the way.

Henderson, who went on to serve as a school principal, RCMP officer and chief at Montreal Lake, has vivid memories of the period. About a month passed before the school administra­tor went to look for Bobby in La Ronge, Henderson said. By then, the distraught grandparen­ts knew that chances of finding him alive were slim.

“It was brutal. They took it very hard,” Don Bird said.

It wasn’t until November that a search was finally organized. For trackers, it was the worst time of year. The ground was cold and hard with no snow to trace footprints. The students and staff, working in teams of four, scoured the bush and other areas within three kilometres of the school. They didn’t find Bobby. He was finally reported missing to police in January of the following year, according to the RCMP file.

Angelique, a teenager at the time, didn’t want to believe her little brother could be dead. The family would get reports from well-meaning friends that Bobby had been seen in downtown Edmonton or driving a vehicle through North Dakota. “I just felt hopeful he was alive. I never gave up hope,” she said.

A grim discovery seven years later would provide the Birds with their first answers.

In the fall of 1976, a man was hunting along Bull Moose Creek six kilometres north of the Timber Bay school site. He spotted a small skull and a bone in the bush. It was only a stone’s throw from the old highway to La Ronge.

The remains were sent to Royal University Hospital. According to a Nov. 19 autopsy by Dr. Harry Emson and a report by University of Saskatchew­an Professor Patrick Hartney, the tibia bone was not human. The skull, however, was that of a young boy. Any further insight would prove difficult, as the skull was missing its facial features and DNA testing was not yet available. No one could say for sure this was Bobby.

“There was a huge gap. The remains couldn’t be linked to any specific person,” U of S archeology department head Ernie Walker said.

Twenty- three more years passed.

In 1999, Walker got a request from RCMP to re-examine the small box on their shelves containing a child’s skull marked

Many kids were lonesome. Bobby wanted to get home.



“Waskesiu detachment.” They’d kept it in storage all those years.

“We held on to it just in case. You just never know,” Walker said.

Using more modern techniques, Walker determined the skull belonged to a boy between the ages of seven and 12, and “likely” about 10. The tibia bone was that of a whitetaile­d deer.

Walker said it’s not uncommon to find only a skull without any other bones. Dogs, coyotes and other animals often carry remains long distances, Walker said.

Walker and others worked with Sgt. Sid Bowles, the Saskatchew­an RCMP’s “bone expert.” Bowles then brought the skull back to the lab in Regina.

Bowles tracked down former officers stationed in Waskesiu in the 1970s. They said they suspected the remains were Bobby Bird’s.

Bowles then contacted Don Bird, who worked as an RCMP officer before becoming a judge. Don put them in touch with Angelique and her sister.

Angelique was living in Saskatoon when an RCMP officer knocked on her door and took a blood sample for DNA testing. Other officers collected blood from her sister, Priscilla, by then a teacher in La Ronge.

Bowles tried to test the skull in Regina, but the lack of teeth and lower jaw yielded inconclusi­ve results.

Bowles was undeterred. He’d heard about a lab at the University of Victoria using a method called mitochondr­ial DNA testing. It involved testing traits handed down by mothers to their children, and could be done with more limited samples. He sent the material there.

“I hoped it would work, but I wasn’t sure,” the now-retired Bowles said from his home on Last Mountain Lake.

A few weeks later, the results came back. All three samples contained a unique signature. The remains were Bobby’s. Officers notified the family.

“I was numb. I didn’t want to believe it,” Angelique said. “(But) after a while, it did feel good knowing something was done about it all these years.”

Bowles said he approached all of his cases “like a dog looking for a bone.” But Bobby Bird was special.

“That was the most satisfying case of my career,” he said. “To give some closure to the family was important.”

On Jan. 21, 2000, Bobby’s remains were buried following a service at All Saints Anglican Church in La Ronge. The funeral card lists eight close relatives, including Bobby’s mother and grandparen­ts, who died not knowing his fate.

The Birds believe Bobby died attempting to run home like the two Timber Bay students before him. He probably followed the old road north to La Ronge. When a vehicle came, Bobby might have run into the bush. One can imagine his losing his way in the dark before succumbing to the cold.

In spite of their residentia­l school experience­s, many of Bobby’s family members have gone on to successful careers in law, education and other fields. Angelique, now a 58-year-old grandmothe­r of six, is hoping to write a book about her brother.

“I think of what might have been,” Don Bird said. “We are where we are, but he never had a chance.”

Bobby Bird’s tragic story is far from unique.

In 2013, a national study documented the deaths of more than 3,000 residentia­l school students. That means at least one in 50 of the 150,000 children placed in the schools died while attending.

“I think Bobby’s story needs to be told,” North Battleford lawyer and Bird family friend Eleanore Sunchild said.

“So many aboriginal children were lost in the residentia­l school system. There are many others still missing today in this country.”

Many families were not as fortunate as Bird’s. More than 500 of those dead children remain nameless.

 ?? LIAM RICHARDS/POSTMEDIA NEWS ?? Family and friends of Bobby Bird gather at the Battleford­s Indian and Métis Friendship Centre for a feast to honour the boy’s spirit.
LIAM RICHARDS/POSTMEDIA NEWS Family and friends of Bobby Bird gather at the Battleford­s Indian and Métis Friendship Centre for a feast to honour the boy’s spirit.
 ??  ?? Bobby Bird at Timber Bay residentia­l school in Saskatchew­an, where the boy was subjected to abusive conditions.
Bobby Bird at Timber Bay residentia­l school in Saskatchew­an, where the boy was subjected to abusive conditions.

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