Warning: The information and material here may trigger unpleasant feelings or thoughts of past abuse. Please contact the 24-hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 if you require emotional support.
The first story I heard about “the missing” was from a Dene elder, Catherine, just over 10 years ago. She was speaking about the impact of tuberculosis on her family at a health conference. The topic triggered her memories of residential school, and of a younger sister who never returned. Perhaps her sister didn’t come home because the school made her ashamed of her people, Catherine speculated, or moved to the United States and married. Or, Catherine continued, perhaps her sister had died at the school. There was no way to find out. As Catherine spoke, I saw the ache of losing her sister in her face and heard it in her voice, raw and fresh, as if she was experiencing it again.
Over the years, I heard a trickle of similar stories. Lost relatives, speculation about where they might be living, followed by suspicions they did not survive the schools. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launched its public hearings, that trickle grew to a steady stream. Some survivors had seen deaths at the schools from disease, malnutrition or abuse. Some testified they had witnessed murder. One remembered digging graves for his schoolmates. The TRC had records for only 4,100 deaths but concluded the true number must be much higher.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children near the Kamloops Indian Residential School is not surprising. But it still hit our communities like a jolt. For many years, the stories of unmarked graves and hidden deaths were greeted with raised eyebrows or a curled lip. One survivor told me his stories were always greeted with so much doubt that he began to question his own mind.
The discovery of this unmarked grave is finally physical proof. But it brings no relief. Families all over B.C. must be thinking of lost cousins, brothers, daughters and asking: will we ever know if they are among those found? And triggered once more into asking the question that has been weighing them down throughout the years: will we ever know what happened?
We know they are mourning; some have called for this to be a moment of healing. The range of emotions in the communities are intense but varied. Among them, anger is spilling onto Twitter and Facebook. It pours out in conversations with colleagues. Three times this week, I’ve heard someone say: “I feel like I want to punch someone.”
If this latest case is to evolve into a moment of healing or reconciliation, it is important to unpack that anger, understand the truth in it and listen carefully to what First Nations elders, leaders, activists and youth are saying. I want to tell you two stories.
The first story is about Kitcisakik, a small Algonquin community located in the Vérendrye wildlife reserve in Quebec. I wrote a series of stories about Kitcisakik in the early 2000s. The community is deep in the forest, accessible by a confusing network of intertwining logging roads that all look the same. Back then, the road into the community opened into a small village consisting of modest homes that were more accurately described as shanties, with no running water. (There have been improvements to housing since then).
From 1955 until 1973, most of the children were sent to the Saint Marc de Figuery Residential School, more than 400 kilometres away. After it shut its doors, the government promised to build a school for the community, but there was a problem. The Algonquins had never signed a treaty, and they did not have a reserve. They were considered squatters on their own unceded land, which was now a provincial park. Because they had no reserve, they were in legal limbo; not clearly in federal or provincial jurisdiction. Until all of that was resolved, they were told, there could be no school.
In coming days, advocates will explain why systems in place today are similar to the residential school system, writes Karyn Pugliese a.k.a. Pabàmàdiz. Here it is in short: children are still being needlessly removed from their parents and culture.
When I arrived in the summer of 2003, the long-promised school had still not been built. Children as young as five were bussed 120 kilometres north to the town of Val-d’Or each Sunday, where they lived with foster families until Friday, every year until they finished high school, or gave up and dropped out. Many did just that: only 15 per cent of people in the community had diplomas.
The residential school system never really ended, Jimmy Papatie, who was the chief at the time, told me. In the residential school system, “educate” did not mean reading or writing, he explained. “Education” was only a euphemism for erasing the children’s identity, culture and kinship ties from the inside out.
Even children who experienced the “best-case scenario” in the system were scarred. It violated human rights. It was wrong. Thirty years after the residential school closed, children in Kitcisakik were still being removed from their parents and community to be raised and educated in another culture and language. No one in the community had raised their own child in three generations.
The community built a makeshift classroom in 2005 to keep the youngest children at home and began threatening to pull the rest of their children from school. In 2009, the federal government acquiesced and built a primary school. Since then, children have stayed in the community until they are almost teenagers but must still live in exile to attend high school.
Kitcisakik is one community, but similar stories have played out in hundreds of other communities that do not have high schools. The system is neither effective nor safe. Dropout rates in these communities are often higher than 60 per cent, according to census data. As for safety, read Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers examining the deaths of seven First Nations students living hundreds of miles from their homes to attend school in Thunder Bay, Ont. Schools that do exist are chronically underfunded, as evidenced in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and numerous other reports, including some by the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer.
From time to time, you have seen the dilapidated buildings; the drafty trailers that pass for classrooms create a flurry of news stories. Sometimes there is a small fix, sometimes the story wears itself out and gets dropped from the news lineup. Nothing much changes. When I worked at APTN, my colleague Cheryl McKenzie once quipped that we could rerun stories from 20 years ago and no one would notice.
The second story is about the child welfare system. I have heard people say “the child welfare system picked up where the residential school system left off” so many times it is impossible to trace the quote to its original source. In 1951, there was a series of amendments to the Indian Act, including a change to Section 88 allowing provincial laws including child welfare legislation to apply to First Nation reserves. Soon after, thousands of Indigenous children were “scooped” into the system.
That term “scooped” comes from researcher Patrick Johnson, who published the book Native Children and the Child Welfare System in 1983. He took the word from one social worker in B.C. who spoke of “scooping” First Nations children, as she openly admitted, on the slightest pretext. Many were taken only because their parents and communities were poor, and social workers believed the children would be better off in white communities. The ‘60s Scoop, as it came to be called, lasted well into the 1980s, becoming a millennial scoop, and has spread to Gen Z. In 1977, Johnson found Indigenous children made up 20 per cent of children in foster care. According to the census, that number was 52.2 per cent by 2016.
The outcomes for children in the system have not been good. A forest of trees must have been mowed down to generate paper for the multiple reports, inquiries and media investigations chronicling problems with the system.
Children still are often removed from their culture; they switch homes frequently, failing to form any bond with foster parents. They are overrepresented in prisons and have a high rate of self-harm and suicide. As soon as they turn 18, the system dumps them to make their own way in the world. As Chief Judge Edwin C. Kimelman, who led an inquiry into the impact of Manitoba’s child welfare system on Indigenous children, once famously wrote: “The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and the child welfare system was the contractor.”
Many of those children never should have been in care. In the late 1970s, the federal government allowed the creation of a separate system for First Nations children, which was supposed to be more culturally sensitive and keep children closer to their communities. In 2016, child advocate Cindy Blackstock proved the system was effectively discriminating against First Nations children. Blackstock has always been clear that some children do need to be removed for their safety or well-being, but too many are removed needlessly.
The federal government had so underfunded the service, it could not offer the basic support regularly offered to non-Indigenous families to First Nations families. Social workers in the First Nations system often had no choice but to remove children even for minor issues. The government did tweak the system and funding after Blackstock won the case, but not enough. Blackstock has filed at least nine non-compliance orders.
In the days to come, you will hear Blackstock and other advocates packaging decades of evidence, statistics, testimony into soundbites to demonstrate why the systems in place today are similar to the old residential school system.
Here it is in short: children are still being needlessly removed from their parents and culture, and they are hurting. As in the case of residential schools, governments running these systems understand the problems and could fix them. Except doing so is expensive.
After news broke of the discovery of the children’s remains at Kamloops, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart — it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
Those words meant to comfort. As I said, they also triggered anger. And this is why.
The prime minister sees the legacy of the residential school system as a closed chapter of history. First Nations believe that chapter is still being written. Systemic racism lives on in the systems that replaced residential schools, and Trudeau is only the latest prime minister to hold the pen.