Linda Aubichon pictured the Christmas before her death. Photo submitted by Mary Aubichon.

This is the first story in the two-part Ripple Effect series.

Forty-nine years ago, a group of several dozen girls collectively experienced one of the darkest days of their lives, watching in horror as their classmate drowned in a lake near the Ile-a-la-Crosse convent.

Linda Aubichon was a 13-year-old student at the Roman Catholic-run boarding school at the time, and had been enjoying the first trip to the beach that year with her fellow dorm-mates; it was a Saturday outing for girls whose families lived too far away or were unable to visit on the weekend.

In Linda’s case, her parents in Patuanak could only be reached by float plane since there were not yet any roads between the two north-west Saskatchewan communities. At that time there was no school in Patuanak, so Aubichon’s and many other kids’ parents made the difficult decision to send them to Ile-a-la-Crosse as their only chance of getting an education.

Earlier in the day on June 1, 1968, Linda told her seven-year-old niece Mary to come out with them if she got a chance. It was advice Mary heeded, because she and her sister looked to Linda as a mother figure: “we kind of looked up to her in that sense because she was older than us and we didn’t have our parents. So that’s how it was: she was there to look after us and guide us.”

Linda was part of a close-knit group of friends that were in different grades and stayed in different dorms, but were tied together by their Dene language. In a boarding school where parents were far away and girls were often separated from their siblings, the word “friend” isn’t enough to describe their relationship, said Delia Alberg, who described the connection as “more like a family type of thing because we all spoke the same language and can relate to each other.”

That day at the beach, the Dene girls had finished all their chores for the day, ate lunch, and were playing together in the water with up to 50 or so other girls.

“It all started out with a nice sunny day and it was the first day at the beach,” said Terrie Bekattla-Dongu.

“It was always a good time then because we knew we were going home. Oh man, I can just remember the feeling now. It was like Christmas morning. You know how happy you get at Christmas? That’s how we were because it was such a long dreadful year, I would say, you know, being away from home that long.”

That day in the water, Bekattla-Dongu’s anticipation and excitement changed in an instant after Linda lost ahold of her large beach ball and went away from her friends chasing after it. Within moments the other girls heard her scream and looked to see Linda flailing, and thrashing as her head bobbed underwater.

Bekattla-Dongu was a few years older than Linda, and much taller, so her first thought was to grab ahold of Linda and drag her back to shallower water.

“At one point, she grabbed me and I was going down so I thought maybe I could touch the bottom and walk but then I started going down. And I realized there was a big drop-off,” she said, recalling screaming for help with the nuns on the shore. To her recollection, the two nuns present never stepped foot in the water.

There were no floating devices, no lifejackets, and any of the girls who tried to help got pulled under too. For Linda’s friends and onlookers, being so helpless was an agonizing experience.

“Everybody was hysterical. You just saw somebody that you were playing with 10 minutes ago, and then somebody’s end of life,” said Alberg.

“I still remember the head popping up and then how it just vanished. It just kind of went deep in the water.”

Even though Mary was only seven at the time, those events are etched in her memory.

“In 1968 I witnessed my auntie drowning in front of us,” she recalled.

“You can never forget what you witnessed. It’s embedded with you forever. When tragedy happens in front of you, you never forget it, ever.”

Mary was in such a deep shock that later that night that, while Bekattla-Dongu and others stood on the shore watching the RCMP boat recovering Linda’s body, she was taken to the infirmary vomiting and feeling sick to her stomach.

The drowning is also recorded in A Leap in Faith: The Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada Volume III, which says “close to the sisters’ hearts was the loss by drowning of a 13-year old girl, Linda Aubichon, on June 1, 1968. In spite of all efforts of the priests, sisters, Corporal Pless of the RCMP and his helper, Linda could not be rescued from the merciless element.”

Bekketla-Dongu was among those who later went to the morgue to see her lifeless friend, still in a bathing suit. Neither she nor any of the other girls were ever asked what happened. There was no investigation nor was there any debriefing with school staff — just the girls saying their rosary by the waterside with the nuns.

The next day, Bekketla-Dongu remembers she and other girls held the edges of a sheet, carrying Linda’s body towards a plane that would take her to the final destination of Patuanak, where her grave marker now stands.

Linda’s sister Leona was on the other end of that flight. She was six at the time, but has a clear memory of the wind stirring up whitecaps on the water and beavers playing nearby. She remembers being confused about why her mother was sitting on the bridge, crying inconsolably.

Leona’s father told her the nuns just watched Linda drown, something that would never be allowed today, she says.

She remembers what happened afterwards too – Leona’s parents did not allow her to attend the same boarding school where her sister died, even after a visit from interpreters who tried to influence them to send her there. Leona didn’t go to school until years later, when a school was built in Patuanak.

None of the girls in Ile-a-la-Crosse were allowed to go to the funeral, not even Linda’s niece Mary. There was no service or memorial held at the school as far as any of the girls remember.

“Even though as hurt as we were, we still had to stay behind. And every year we came back knowing. And every year when I would go back to residential school, in my mind I would always blame the nuns. It was the nuns fault, and I didn’t care if I listened or not. I retaliated many times,” Mary said.

Nearly 50 years later, those memories haunt so many of those who were present during the drowning. They have aged from young girls into women now in their 50s and 60s.

Every year leading up to June 1, Bekattla-Dongu gets a sick feeling in her stomach, feeling she didn’t try hard enough. “I close my eyes and I can see her in the water.”

“She was a nice girl. She was an awesome person to know… I often wonder what she would have been like,” Alberg said, adding she often thinks about what age Linda would be now.

“She could have had a life and that didn’t happen. You wonder what could we have done to save her, if we had been provided life jackets.”

Linda’s death has led Mary to push to expose the pain and trauma suffered while they were students at the boarding school, which has never been recognized as an Indian Residential School. While an entire volume of the final report from the Truth and Reconcialiation Commission is dedicated to the Metis experience in residential schools, to date no prime minister has ever included Ile-a-la-Crosse in a residential school apology. Alberg, and others, want Linda to be remembered. They want to know that Linda’s life mattered.

Bekattla-Dongu, who is now an on-air Dene announcer for MBC, said she’s never fully healed from that day, and she’s not alone. Part 2 of this series will explore the struggle to cope and how Linda’s death has affected those who witnessed it.

The radio piece on Part 1 of Linda’s story can be listened to here.