We had all heard the stories long before we started receiving 24/7 coverage this summer from every news station in Canada. Long before ground-penetrating radars confirmed the presence of anonymous graves, we knew that our missing family members had not simply “disappeared” or attempted to flee residential schools, despite what the missionaries had told us and government officials. Indigenous communities are necessarily very united and we live in the history of our people despite all efforts to eradicate our knowledge, our cultures, our languages - and our lives.
Released in 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) estimated that 4,100 named and unnamed students died in residential schools across Canada. To keep costs low, according to the report, many were likely buried in unmaintained, unmarked graves in school cemeteries, rather than returning student bodies to their home communities. Often, parents were not informed at all, or the children would have died of illness – an excuse commonly used to justify the intentional genocides of Indigenous nations based on our supposed biological inferiority.
My reserve community is the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan amidst the beautiful prairies of the north. The institution for the children of Thunderchild was called St Henri, built in 1901 by the Roman Catholic Church. The creation of these residential schools was the direct result of Canadian policy to remove Indigenous peoples from our lands and assimilate us into Canadian society. Neither Church nor State is innocent in the continued genocide of our people.
On May 27, 2021, the graves of at least 215 Indigenous children were officially discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, in the city of Kamloops, British Columbia. Less than a month later, 751 anonymous graves were located at Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. Six days later, 182 anonymous graves were located at the site of the St Eugene Mission School in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Over the days, more and more communities are discovering such tragedies.
The result of this long-awaited calculation involves several Indigenous Nations across the country digging into their own soils, continuing the stories we have all heard from our elders and knowledge keepers.
Many of us understand that mainstream Canadian schools themselves are violent institutions of assimilation and colonization. In my predominantly native urban elementary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I grew up singing O Canada and God Save the Queen in assemblies. In the dining room, Johnny Appleseed, a biblical song about the benevolence of a Christian god, was to be recited before we were allowed to eat our school-provided meals. Yet the terms “residential school” – and their American equivalent, “residential school” – are deeply inadequate. These “boarding schools”, “day schools” and “boarding schools” were prisons. They were forced labor camps.
I remember hearing about Cris, including young children, being forced to work on sugar beet farms in the brutal summer heat. This was a common practice from the 1940s to at least the 1980s: Farmers lured dispossessed and starving natives into seasonal work with bogus promises, then forced workers to work 12 to 14 hours a day with little. or no salary. They slept in empty trucks, tents or grain elevators. If they ventured into neighboring towns, they were hunted with bats. If they tried to leave, their children could be taken away.
Some of the stories we are told about residential schools involve Aboriginal children digging graves for other children. Rarely have our ancestors received appropriate burials or grave markers. The soils of these lands have always known our hands, as gardeners, as workers; these lands contain our bodies and the bodies of our ancestors. The ground beneath so-called Canada has been hell and it has been a refuge.
One thing is clear: the lives of Aboriginal children are never “lost”; they are deliberately and violently stolen. Likewise, the lands of indigenous peoples -om Canada to the United States and beyond – are never “lost”; they have been and continue to be forcibly colonized. The words we use are important to Aboriginal life because these words define the past, the present and the possible. Part of the process of dismantling colonization is to reckon with the soft language that Canadians have learned to use to describe the violence of the empire.
In our communities, the accounting for Indigenous death seems relentless. We hear, see and feel the growing number of graves discovered: increasing numbers recited apparently hundreds of times a day on nearly every Canadian news network. Endless repetitions of residential school crisis line phone numbers to connect grievers with mental health counselors. None of this is enough.
I refuse to play the numbers game. Our grief and our lives cannot be reduced to numbers or statistics. As a Twitter user @awahihte Put the, “Kamloops is not a unit of measurement. And what gaze do we call upon when we repeat these numbers over and over again, in the hope of eliciting empathy from a settler state that cannot feel? Meanwhile, as aboriginal people, we are struck to the heart by these numbers, every time. There is simply no calculation that can explain the life of every child robbed by the violence of colonialism – all the moments of joy, curiosity, play and learning that make childhood such a wonderful time; these things are immeasurable and intangible. The lived experience of indigenous childhood is irreducible to any European notion of property, and that is precisely why it constitutes a threat to the colonial order.
And what can the Catholic Church and the Canadian State do to repair the irreparable? The colonial institution of Canada will not reform and certainly will not end. Yet there is one variable often overlooked in this calculation: our resistance continues. I think not only of the young people who were robbed, but of the childhoods that were reclaimed by the Aboriginal resurgence and the pervasive love of our parents and our communities. Indeed, our people are still being robbed and killed. Indeed, our knowledge is suppressed, and our lands are colonized. Despite this, what allows me to wake up in the morning and have hope is all we managed to save – all they couldn’t take. Our languages and ceremonies were preserved and practiced under cover, safe from Indian agents patrolling our reserves. And parents were camping in tipis outside these prisons, waiting to see their children. They never gave up. We neither.
The children’s institution on my reserve, the Thunderchild First Nation, set amidst the beautiful northern prairies, was burnt down in 1948 by a fire that started in the middle of the night. The fire was said to have been started by children held in captivity at Saint-Henri. The institution has never been rebuilt.
Since time immemorial, many indigenous peoples around the world have used fire to rejuvenate the earth and restore order to the natural world. The lesson is that sometimes things have to burn for the soil to heal and become healthy again. As monuments and statues of colonial figures are overthrown and black and indigenous communities continue to resist and heal, another world becomes possible. In the other world we are building on this land that our ancestors knew so well, no child will have their formative years violently stolen by colonialism. They will be free. We will be free.