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.

An elder told me a story. It goes like this.

It was long ago and late summer in a remote northern village. A Cree village. Everyone still lived in tents. One day priests visited. They announced that the next time they came, they would take the children. It would be for the best, they explained. The children would go to school. The priests left, and some short time later — maybe a week, maybe two — they returned. This time, the Mounties came with them. The Mounties wore red coats, black boots and each Mountie wore a belt with a gun. The priests did as they'd promised. With the help of the Mounties, they piled the children into boats and floated away.

That evening, the villagers made their fires, cooked supper and ate in silence.

Their world was silent.

No children played or laughed.

No children quarrelled or cried.

The quiet became unbearable.

For those willing to accept the truth about residential schools, Canada is not the country they thought they knew. But there is an opportunity to change it, writes columnist Karyn Pugliese, a.k.a. Pabàmàdiz.

The sun had not yet set, but they crept into their tents anyway.

Soon a sob broke the silence. It was a woman crying.

Then another sob.

Then another woman.

The sun sank orange, the yellow moon rose, and all night long the only sound heard in the village was mothers crying.

"The schools were never meant to do us any good," the elder told me. "They knew. They knew that when you break the hearts of our women, you break the strength of our nations."

Paul Barnsley has spent 25 years covering news for Indigenous-owned media, and it is widely agreed he's done a damn good job of it. He's not Indigenous himself.

He covered the police killing of the unarmed Dudley George at Ipperwash Park his first year on the job. Then, the police takedown of Sun Dancers who were holding spiritual ceremonies near Gustafsen Lake, B.C. Both events unfolded in 1995 and changed the way he understood Canada.

“I had no idea. ...every time I went out, I’d say, ‘No, no, this can’t happen in Canada,’” he said.

He described the experience like “going through the looking glass.”

Paul’s words came back to me recently: Through the looking glass. A reference to a world where things are not as they should be. Where known rules no longer apply.

Through the looking glass.

Two hundred fifteen graves outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Seven hundred fifty-one unmarked graves near the site of the old Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

More yet to be found.

This is the world on the Indigenous side of the looking glass.

Kerry Benjoe of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation is a journalist who works at CBC. She attended the Lebret (Qu’Appelle) Indian Industrial Residential School in Saskatchewan. So did her mother, her grandmother and great-grandmother.

“At the signing of the treaties, one of the negotiations was for a little red brick schoolhouse on every reserve. And what we got was residential schools. And I think they were purposely built with these bricks, these red bricks,” she told CBC in a recent appearance on Newsnet.

Every one of the 11 numbered treaties signed between 1871 and 1922 promised to build schools on-reserve at the request of First Nations leaders. In that interview, Kerry showed a broken red brick left over from her school, which had been torn down. She says it's symbolic of an unkept promise.

Every time she feels the weight of that brick, Kerry must imagine how different life might have been for four generations of women, if only...

Perhaps we should stop calling these institutions schools. It’s misleading. Schools are built to teach. There may have been individual teachers with good intentions. There may have been individuals attending these institutions who benefitted. But any benefit was a side-effect. The system was designed to erase us.

Sir John A. Macdonald explained in 1883: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian.”

Understanding the legacy of residential institutions is important, not just for the harm that policy caused. But because every policy, every program, every law aimed at Indigenous people over the same hundred-year period was shaped by the same attitudes of racial superiority. Poor water, shoddy housing, underfunded schools, child welfare. Unresolved land claims that led to standoffs with police. Residential schools were not an exception in government policy. They were the rule.

There will always be residential school deniers. They insist some children had good experiences at the institutions who are now being silenced. They argue violence against children was normal at the time. They say schools were well intentioned.

Yes, some survivors had good experiences at the schools, but they have not been silenced. Their stories are also in the TRC report. It’s just that there are comparatively few. The numbers tell us this. Almost 80,000 survivors received a common experience payment and 38,000 survivors received compensation for physical abuse, confinement, or sexual abuse through the independent assessment process (IAP). And that violence was not normal. To qualify for compensation through the IAP, harm had to exceed the norms of the day. The government’s own officials frequently described what they witnessed as abuse.

And there are the children who cannot speak for themselves. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a report in 1907, stating that in a survey of 15 schools, 25 per cent of the students died of tuberculosis. The worst school had a death rate of 69 per cent. One reverend at the Presbyterian Church, R.P. MacKay, called the schools “death traps.”

All through the generations, abusers were rarely removed, and Dr. Bryce’s report was buried.

To those who would say, “It was a long time ago”: It wasn’t. The impacts of the schools are still seen and felt in our communities every day.

For those willing to accept the truth, Canada is not the country they thought they knew. And they are trying to come to grips with it.

There have been calls to tear down statues or rename schools bearing the names of Sir John A., Egerton Ryerson and others. Some Canadians don’t feel like celebrating Canada Day this year.

Naysayers call this cancel culture. It is not. This is the righting of history, what happens when the whole story is known.

I think it’s healthy for communities to ask if there’s any pride left in historic figures like Sir John A. and if it’s time to honour others more deserving.

I support people’s right to reflect quietly about the whole history of the country on Canada Day. There are good things about Canada that deserve to be celebrated. But Confederation has not been good for Indigenous people, and the TRC asks you to acknowledge that.

Reconciliation is not about guilt. Few people living today had the knowledge or power to stop what was happening. You didn’t do anything wrong. All of us are trapped and living with the same history. The question is, what will we do about it?

If you didn’t like what you saw when you stepped through the looking glass, you can change it.

This opportunity is precious, fragile, and it almost didn’t happen.

I worry about what will happen if it fails.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
July 2, 2021, 09:09 am

This story has been corrected to reflect that Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce's report was written in 1907

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There is no way out for non-Indigenous people on this. No rationalizations, no deflections, no denials. Although (witness the comments section in a recent G&M article by Talaga), many still put them forward.

My greater concern is that the thinking behind these monstrous policies, programs, actions, abuses and murders, is still out there--and not particularly hidden. Joyce Echaquan's death demonstrated that, if nothing else did. There are still racial slurs voiced about and against Indigenous people--I've heard them in every community I've ever lived in, in 73 years.

We need federal/provincial/territorial action, jointly with Indigenous organizations, to root this out, and eliminate. One way is through pursuing hate speech legislation, another is through education at all levels on true complete and accurate Canadian history. Including our country's abuses and crimes against indigenous peoples, and all other populations who have suffered, and still do.

This is an excellent article, and like most articles on the horrors we're literally digging up about residential schools, there's more information in here that I never knew. For example, how many settlers know the treaties promised schools on reserves, and reneged at least in part because Big Daddy Sir John believed native children's parents were 'bad influences', 'savages',, etc??

I don't want him cancelled......I want the complete story of what he was willing to do to make Canada white only, told and retold. I want historical truth, not white washed abstractions about 'fathers'....I want the grieving of those mothers, themselves long dead, to reverberate in the stories we tell going forward.

And I want 'every child to matter' in actual fact, not in rhetoric only.

We could begin by rethinking what a good education is, for all our children. There are still too many precious little souls........of all colours and creeds, sitting in our over crowded, underfunded classrooms feeling lost....undervalued, and hopeless. Current Alberta curriculum changes indicate clearly how little officials know or care about those kids.

No child is stupid.....but this culture, in which a watered down reality is dished up as learning, sure does a good job of destroying the genius and creativity in many of our young people. Only in such a culture, could a devastation like the residential schools go on for over half a century.

That our Christian institutions were complicit needs some deep revisioning as well....that they are currently going up in flames suggests the days of denial and reneging on promises are over.
My family and friends stand with our indigenous land defenders....most of us had no idea what they endured to still be here in the front lines of struggle.

They make me proud to be Canadian.

Mary Nokleby is right. Canada's settler culture is still dismissive of everyone who is not male, white and wealthy.

The male, white and wealthy begrudge every non-existent "penny" that winds up in the hands of anyone who is not one of them. They will go to criminal extremes to sequester their wealth from the contamination of supporting these "others" or the very land they exploit and destroy in their laser pursuit of wealth and power. They do not even have to think about it - it simply is accepted as part of their "privilege".

Now that significant challenges are mounted against their "privilege" they react as one would expect - lashing out with outrage, doubling down on their kleptocratic certainty that we, "the others" must kowtow to their supremacy.

This is not limited to Canada, it is a universal human condition. It is time for a universal revolution.

Yes I agree we live with a universal human condition. It tends to aggregate populations, most of which strive to grow larger and demand more of the resources available to them, even if it means a fight to the death . It is what Nature dictates as the price of evolution between and within species. In spite of our own species infighting between ever larger tribes and alliances we now are destroying the finite Biosphere of this Earth to satisfy our lust for things. Our social policies seem to be predicated on the belief that growth is exponential, our population will grow into the hundreds of billions, and the material wellbeing of all is possible. Where is the space for all to even stand, let alone lay down to rest? No evidence I see that this planet we live on is expanding. Rather, the evidence is we are well into using up the reserves that accumulated before we came along. Still a little time to pay attention to what we have been doing, and change our cultures as humanely as possible to those that are sustainable, so at least some of our youngsters and their progeny have a shot at life.

So beautifully articulated Mary. Tomorrow on Canada Day I will be wearing orange, and I will be deeply contemplating my settler history along with thoughts of reciprocity and reconciliation.

Aside from it being a day off work (before self-employment), and when the kids were young taking them to see all the cultural celebrations: dance, music, and have a picnic in the park down by the creek ... it's never been a day of celebration particularly, although I have very fond memories of the town parade, costumes solo and in groups, bicycles decorated, ditto cars and trucks "sponsored" by the various community organizations, and taking up hundreds of hours of time making the decorations and costumes ... and then on the day, early enough to watch the setting up of the merry-go-round, and to suss out what comestibles would be offered at which "booth" ... a series of open shacks each operated by members or family of one of those many community organizations. And in between that and the bleachers was crushed a tiny midway, with darts, ring-toss and we each had enough coin in our zipper-pockets to buy a hamburger and an icecream or chocolate bar. The nearby community marching bands played the parade from the hotel where highway 16 turned after crossing the river and tracks, and followed along the tracks clear past the turnoff to the ballpark, which is where all the prizes were announced and the footraces, sackraces, wheelbarrow races, etc. started ... followed by the softball and baseball tournaments, which had the larger communities all playing at home. Everyone in town who wanted to play ball was on the team, AFAIK. First nations and settlers played side by side ... the little guys retrieving balls and acting as bat-boys likewise.
I don't think confederation was much in anyone's minds, except for perhaps the good ladies who organized the kids but even at that, it was just a community festivity.
We all absorbed, though, a picture of Canada quite different from what it turned out to actually be ...
We, as kids, believed (and did) what our elders told us, accepted that the worlds in story-books and movies existed somewhere outside our village, and even when it was obviously pretend, we accepted a picture of the world that was kind of that way.
It seems like a long time ago, till one stops to realize where one was, or for the younger amongst us, where their parents were, at the time.