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They were children

Friday, 30 September 2022. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

They were children

They were children

Written by Shannon (Robison) Peace

Originally published on June 2, 2021, this article received the Sue Gawlak Best Local Editorial Award in the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association 2021 Better Newspapers Competition Awards of Excellence.

Warning: This editorial may be disturbing to some readers.

Canada: a nation strong and free. A society known for accepting diversity and welcoming immigrants.

Canada: a country that allowed its native children, the only ones with family roots in the soil of its land, to be stripped of their traditions and their culture.

They were children.

They were children too young to understand the intolerance, the hatred and the horrific acts against them, yet old enough to feel the fear, the loneliness and the anguish of being torn from their families.

They were Indigenous children, young and vulnerable, taken involuntarily to become “civilized” at Indian residential schools.

The purpose of these schools was simple: to force them to no longer be Indians, to strip them of their language, beliefs and customs regardless, it seems, of the cost. These institutions — 134 of them across Canada, including two on Piikani Nation, one on the Blood Tribe Reserve and another south of Cardston — changed lives.

A high price was paid by these children, their families and their communities.

Imagine your young child screaming as she is torn from your arms by strangers.
And imagine her returning home with vacant eyes and a broken spirit.
Imagine the local Indian agent relaying that your son has died at school and will not be coming home.
Or imagine spending your lifetime wondering what became of your child who simply vanished. You were told he ran away. Is he alive? Is he dead? What was the truth?

The truth is still being sought and each time tragedy is brought forward, another small step is taken toward completing the story.

The horrific discovery last week of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has reopened wounds for all touched by residential schools.

It also provides an opportunity for Canadians to learn the stories and to begin to understand what Indigenous children were subjected to and how it continues to impact people today.

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The Kamploops school operated from 1890 to 1978 and was the largest in the system at one time. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website currently lists the names of 51 children who died there.

The remains, located by ground-penetrating radar, are those of students, some as young as three years old.

Like so many, I am mortified, outraged and ashamed. I am also compelled to learn more.

They were children.

The Covid-19 pandemic has driven home the impact on mental health when we are isolated from loved ones and community, and when we aren’t able to grieve or celebrate in traditional ways.

These children and their families did not have the support of mental health hotlines, Zoom gatherings or text support groups. 

From the perspective of a year with lost connections, perhaps more people can find empathy for the truth and reconciliation process and its importance.

Fifty-one deaths were accounted for at the Kamloops school — why were another 215 not?

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Every child should matter. 

It is incomprehensible that these children did not simply because they were Indigenous.

Their deaths were kept dark secrets and their families were deprived of mourning traditions. Instead, they were left with only a void and memories.

Imagine the heartbreak. 

Imagine the anger.

Imagine how this affected subsequent generations.

They were children.

Abuse at residential schools has been documented, along with stories of disappearing children. Enough so that many were not surprised by this brutal discovery, instead, feeling it would eventually happen and that similar graves will be found at other sites.

Imagine seeing another child taken from their bed at night, never to return.

There were whispers of secret graveyards and it must have been a terrifying existence no matter the age of the student.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 4,100 to 6,000 children died while attending residential schools; its website says efforts remain ongoing to fully document the children who never returned home.

Imagine being taught that you are worthless and expendable.

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From the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register:

In 1889 the Roman Catholic day school on the Peigan Reserve accepted three boarding students. Nine years later a new boarding school, known as the Sacred Heart or Peigan school was built on the reserve. A 1909 study of health conditions in residential schools in the west found that 65 of the students who had attended the school since 1892 had died. Overcrowding and the lack of a steady water supply led to a number of closures in the 1950s. In 1961 the school was closed and a new day school took its place.

In 1890, the Anglican Peigan Mission Home opened at St. Peter’s Mission on the Peigan Reserve. In 1897 it was replaced by a new school, the Victoria Jubilee Home for Indian Children, near Brocket. It was replaced by a new school, known as St. Cyprian, in 1927. In 1946 the school barn was destroyed by fire. While attendance was as high as 60 students in the 1950s, by 1961, the year the school closed, it had declined to 35.

The Immaculate Conception Boarding School opened in 1898 on the Blood Reserve. It was replaced in 1926 with a new school, known as St. Mary’s, near Cardston. By the mid-1930s the school was experiencing overcrowding. In 1930, a government inspector said that the boys at both the Catholic and Anglican residential schools on the reserve were being worked like “slaves” from morning to night to support the schools. The school had a severe outbreak of measles in 1935 and an outbreak of spinal meningitis in 1956. The federal government took over the operation of the school in 1969 and closed it in 1988.

St. Paul’s Residential School opened on Big Island in the Belly River in 1889, south of Cardston. A 1908 federal government report described the St. Paul’s school as “quite unfit for the purpose it is being used for.” A 1930 report said the boys were being worked like “slaves” while in 1948 the local Indian Superintendent said that he could not take runaways back to the school since they were better off at home. In 1969 the federal government took over the administration of the school and in 1975 the residence was closed and the school transferred to the local First Nation.

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Reading these descriptions sends a shiver down my spine each time.

It is important to bear in mind that child mortality rates were much higher in the early 1900s than they are today and that tuberculosis was common.

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, “TB thrives where there is poverty and health inequity. Living conditions that contribute to high rates of TB among First Nations, Inuit and Métis include: crowded and poor-quality housing, food insecurity, and barriers to health-care access.”

This made residential schools a prime breeding ground for the disease. Tuberculosis is transmitted through airborne droplets, similar to Covid-19.

While we have been legally required to isolate to reduce spread of the coronavirus, these children lived in close quarters under poor conditions. This disease and others would account for many deaths.

But this does not explain the unmarked graves. It does not justify the hidden deaths of 215 children at a single school.

The last Canadian Indian residential school closed in 1996.

Imagine the relief for Indigenous families.

“That any Indigenous person survived the culturally crushing experience of the schools is a testament to their resilience, and to the determination of those members of their families and communities who struggled to maintain and pass on to them what remained of their diminishing languages and traditions,” wrote Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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They were children.

The lives of those who survived were forever changed.

Those who didn’t survive could have been elders among their people now but were robbed of that honour.

The past cannot be changed, but generations of children have been negatively impacted. It is not something Indigenous people can be expected to simply get over and close the book on.

It is often described as a dark chapter in Canadian history, but it won’t be completely written until fully investigated. 

Reconciliation can begin only after the full truth is found and last week’s discovery shows we are not there yet.

There are students who say they benefited from the education and found the conditions, deplorable as they might have been, better than their prior living circumstances. 

These stories need to be remembered as well.

The impact has been long-lasting.

They were children who lost faith in themselves along with the connection to their families and their culture. They were parents, grandparents and extended family who grieved incomprehensible loss. This history remains a painful and emotional reality more than a century later.

Some say they feel constantly judged while trying to define who they are and where they belong. Generalizations, stereotypes and racism are real issues — in our community and beyond.

The disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada is a fact.

Despite this painful history, we need only look around our own community to see the traits of resilience and determination in Indigenous people excelling in a multitude of areas. This is to their great credit.

The past cannot be changed, but it must be taught truthfully and remembered in a meaningful way across the nation, if there is hope to move forward from it.

Imagine the difference we can each make.

Every small step is significant.

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School names are being changed, the Orange Shirt movement is in high gear, and calls for the sites of all former residential schools to be searched for unmarked graves are being heard from coast to coast.

Hopefully people are not responding without intent to act, but are prepared to listen and to learn, and to put forth an effort for essential change.

A monument in Ottawa does nothing to assist Indigenous people. Clean water, adequate housing, educational supports, addiction and mental health services, a national day of mourning — these are things that will make a difference.

Imagine the hope this could provide.

Imagine the lives that could be changed.

Most important in owning the truth, in my mind at least, is allowing it to be taught. Not a whitewashed version, but the ugly truth.

They were children.

Our children attend Remembrance Day services and learn about its meaning from a young age. The same types of gentle lead-ins can be used in teaching about residential schools and be carried on as continuing education.

Personally, I am ashamed at how little I know about this history. As a high school student in the mid ’80s, I felt the past we learned about was insufficient. I came away with little understanding of many important happenings and didn’t know about residential schools.

Today I am embarrassed by my naiveté and that, even once I initially became aware, I didn’t take the time to dig deeply enough to understand the impact on seven generations of Indigenous children — more than 150,000 children.

Imagine the collective difference we could make if we all knew more.

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Orange Shirt Day has become an avenue to bring awareness to the impact of residential schools and has been embraced by all schools in the area. It provides an avenue to ease into conversations with a challenging topic.

Betty Ann Little Wolf, an elder of Piikani Nation, shared her experience for Livingstone Range School Division on Orange Shirt Day in 2020. This powerful video is a starting place for anyone interested in learning more and can be viewed online at bit.ly/3wPX24U.

Betty Ann says the discovery of the graves in Kamloops was a shock but at the same time was expected because of her own experience and the stories of children disappearing.

“We have to help our children first before we can help others,” she said to me Tuesday morning. “Those who lived and survived must continue to teach and work to move past it.”

As an elder and knowledge keeper, she wants others to know the truth of Canada and she believes in forgiveness.

My daughter, who attended school in both Saskatchewan and Pincher Creek, found teachings about residential schools incomplete, despite there having been schools just down the road.

To learn what happened to local families, where and why it happened, and how they can play a role in recovering and moving forward is important to many in her generation.

Imagine if it was important to everyone.

They were children.

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Should you care to read the names of the lives lost in our neighbouring communities and take time for thoughtful remembrance, these links are provided for your convenience:

—The lives of 45 students of Sacred Heart Residential School (Peigan) are remembered online at bit.ly/3g2jUax.

—The lives of seven students of St. Cyprian’s Residential School (Peigan) are remembered at bit.ly/2TutJGJ.

—The lives of 40 students of St. Mary’s (Blood) Residential School are remembered at bit.ly/3wLQi8g.

—The lives of 75 students of St. Paul’s (Blood) Residential School are remembered at bit.ly/3uHmOH2.

Ninety-four calls to action were prescribed by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and can be found at bit.ly/2RSAdPr.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society Emergency Crisis Line is available 24-7 at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 and the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program can be found online at bit.ly/3ySHzmw.

“We can love this country and know it needs to be better,” reads a Facebook post by On Canada Project.

Imagine us moving forward together with compassion, empathy and respect.

They were only children.

We have power and we owe it to them to do better.

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