“It was because the story was hidden that people didn’t know about it.”
That’s how Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and former Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, explains why he thinks so many Canadians were shocked in 2021 after ground-penetrating radar searches had located hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.
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The residential school survivor, who has also served as an MP and on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, believes awareness about residential schools and the trauma they inflicted increased significantly when the burial sites were uncovered.
“It took sort of a real shock and awakening of the country.”
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Littlechild says before the searches found the graves, for some Canadians, there was “always that level of denial that, ‘No, it couldn’t have happened in Canada.’”
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He says survey results he saw prior to the TRC’s formation suggested a shockingly low number of Canadians had much knowledge at all about residential schools at the time.
“Most Canadians grew up not knowing anything about it… (and) those that said they knew about it, did they just know the term or did they really know what went on in the schools? And I think it was the first.”
The summary of the TRC’s final report says residential schools were a central element of Canada’s policy on Indigenous people for over a century, one which aimed to “eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights, terminate the treaties and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada.”
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From the 1870s until 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools across the country, often against their parents’ will. They were forbidden from speaking their language or maintaining their culture. Many were subjected to abuse of all kinds, and the schools saw high mortality rates.
Many children at the schools died of smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis and in many cases a cause of death was never identified. Some were buried in unmarked graves in school cemeteries while others were listed as missing. In some instances, parents never found out what happened to their children.
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In 2015, the TRC said the church-run and government-funded schools amounted to nothing short of a “cultural genocide.”
A national student death register is being maintained by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and currently includes 4,130 children, however, the centre’s website notes “this number will increase over time.”
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“These stories are known, they’ve been told… (and) there are more discoveries to come,” says Shannon Leddy, a member of the Métis Nation British Columbia who is an assistant professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia.
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She suggests the fact the searches found the graves that so many people have known would be there offers some Indigenous people a sense of relief.
“This is a moment of reckoning.”
Leddy believes the development presents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on how society treats Indigenous people “and how we begin to build a better relationship.”
Beginning with the finding of at least 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, over 1,000 such unmarked graves were found at residential school sites in Western Canada over the spring and summer.
“People have been referring to these burial sites as discoveries, but they’re not actually,” says Gabrielle Lindstrom, a member of the Kainaiwa Nation — a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy — and an educational development consultant for Indigenous ways of knowing at the University of Calgary.
“Indigenous communities have been saying all along that there are children buried at these schools. Children have died there and not come home.”
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Littlechild says in recent years, he believes more people have become increasingly aware of the history. But when the unmarked graves were found this year, “a huge increase of awareness across the country happened.”
“We say that the non-Indigenous children were also cheated, were also traumatized, because they weren’t told these stories,” he says.
“My prayer and hope is that’s the stage we’re at now, that we will go on a path of reconciliation now that we know more of the truth. It took this shocking news to wake the country up in a sense, but let’s use that and say, ‘Now that we know the truth, what can we do about it?’ I say let’s work on a path to reconciliation.”
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“These experiences are something everyday Canadians now know about,” Lindstrom says. “Will it be more relevant to their lives? Will it be an impetus for people to do things differently? I don’t really think so because if we just look at what’s happening in Canadian society.”
As an example, Lindstrom cites the Alberta government’s ongoing efforts to revamp its kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum, which has faced significant criticism. Lindstrom says she believes it “waters down the history and redirects the trauma” of residential schools.
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Annette BruisedHead is a member of the Kainai Nation and works with the Model Schools Literacy Project with the Martin Family Initiative, an organization that works with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people on initiatives related to education, health and overall well-being.
She says now that radar searches have reignited a national conversation about residential schools, it is critical to keep it going.
BruisedHead, whose parents and husband were sent to residential schools, says while the conversation is important, she understands dealing with trauma is different for everyone and some are uneasy speaking about their experiences.
She recalls facilitating a workshop for educators at a conference in Edmonton where she brought her parents along.
“They were quite quiet… It was just like yesterday,” BruisedHead says.
“The sacrifice that has to be made in order to be in that position (to educate) is very emotional.”
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Littlechild says the path to reconciliation requires survivors to address the inter-generational trauma that results from children being taken away from their parents.
“We have to do our own work at home to apologize to our own families,” he says. “For not being a good dad or being a good husband or grandpa… Because I never knew anything about parenting when I left residential school. I never knew anything about love. I knew a lot about punishment.”
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Littlechild recounts a TRC event where a man who had survived years of residential school wanted to apologize to his daughter.
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“She came up to sit beside him and they hugged and cried,” Littlechild recalls. “He looked up to me and said… ‘Mr. Commissioner, that’s the first hug I’ve ever had in my life.’
“The addictions, the suicide, the ill health… That’s why that’s happened.”
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Littlechild has been trying to help his own community with finding answers about children who never came home from Ermineskin Indian Residential School, where he also spent many years.
“(That has been a) very emotional experience for me, but I wanted to do it,” he says. “In my own community, we brought home 17 little children that were found in an unmarked grave by Red Deer. I chose to take the little coffin that said ‘six-year-old boy’ on the side of it… (and carried it) home to have our traditional ceremonies and give that boy a proper burial.
“Many families are still out there traumatized because they don’t know where their relative is.”
‘Deliberately suppressed understanding and knowledge about Indigenous people’
“I thought I knew the truth because I went to (residential) school… then hearing 7,000 stories (with the TRC),” Littlechild says. “I guess I didn’t know the truth and I kind of blame myself because when the discoveries happened, it was a huge awakening for me.
“It’s a very highly mixed emotion in the sense of an impact on me personally, just the traumatic shock of it. But trying to help helps me deal with it, not totally, but at least helps me with being able to talk about it.”
Littlechild remembers a poignant moment at a TRC event in Montreal that to him underscored the importance of teaching people about residential schools at a young age.
“I heard a little voice say, ‘I’m very angry,’” he recalls. “Here was a little girl about the height of the chair she had been sitting on… She said, ‘I’m very angry. Why didn’t I learn about this in school?’
“That caused us as a commission to begin holding education days… where the whole day was just spent with students and children to learn from the survivors, their stories… We ended up with well over 14,000 students attending those sessions.”
Littlechild says he knows there is ongoing tension over education curriculums and the debate over how much should be taught about residential schools at young ages.
“It has to be in the curriculum because this story was about children… and children at that age will already be the change agents in the future,” he says. “And in my view, the earlier you begin to share the story with them in a truthful way, the more powerful they’ll be as change agents.”
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Littlechild says towards the end of the TRC’s hearings, the “vast majority of the people in the audience were not Indigenous people” and he attributes that to people becoming more aware of Indigenous history and being inclined to learn more.
Leddy says in the past, thorough teaching about residential schools and Indigenous people’s history was often hampered by education systems that did not enforce teaching about the subject and many teachers simply left it out or “got to it if they had time.”
“(A number of scholars also) have made it very clear that our education system deliberately miseducated many Canadians about Indigenity,” she says. “This left people who wanted to get into the teaching profession completely unprepared (to teach about Indigenous history).”
“I am not surprised that so few people know about it,” Lindstrom says of survey results regarding Canadians’ knowledge of residential schools. “Our education system is controlled by a predominantly white government. Our news media, the curriculum writers, even the way racism is understood and taught about in schools… the way Indigenous people have been portrayed, that is all controlled by predominantly white institutions.
“So these history lessons, as told by predominantly white people, will perpetuate a very one-sided perspective on nation-building, on the role of Indigenous people in Canada… what colonialism means.”
Lindstrom believes this has led to “a very controlled and watered-down history of how Canada came to be,” and does not and include a history of the treaties or look at who Indigenous people are beyond “very colonial constructions of Indigenous identity.”
Leddy believes the education system was set up from the perspective of a colonial power — and that “required excluding Indigenous people.”
“That builds the myth… that this land was empty, unpopulated,” Leddy says. “That worked in conjunction with the doctrine of discovery which said that anyone who was not a Christian was not a human.
“Those mythologies needed to be maintained in order for a foreign power… to impose its own government.”
Leddy says she does not pass judgment on those who did not know the truth about Canada’s residential schools but adds “we’re all responsible for educating ourselves.”
“I think that this discovery (of unmarked graves) was a wake-up call for many, and I think it has begun the process of learning for many, but I think it’s going to take a lot of time.
“I do think that this was a pivotal moment in May and that the change has finally really begun.”
BruisedHead believes children should be learning about residential schools at an early age.
“When the first graves were found… the school district I was with… four-year-olds were tying orange ribbons to school fences, going through prayer,” she recalls. “I think little people have the capacity to understand… (even if) what a four-year-old understands is going to be different than a 14-year-old.”
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Lindstrom suggests while important, education is only one component needed to bring people on a path to reconciliation because “knowing better does not necessarily mean doing better.”
“There’s this assumption in today’s society that education is the be all and end all,” she says. “Education won’t necessarily fix racism and discrimination.
“What is it going to take for people to actually care about the suffering of another human being? I work with some of the most educated people out there… even still, there are still those out there who hold extremely racist views about Indigenous people.
“You don’t just all of a sudden pick up a book or read an article… (and say), ‘Oh, I care about this now.’”
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Lindstrom believes the news of hundreds of unmarked graves being found at residential schools “may reverberate in our country for a little while, but then it’s just going to be business as usual because of our system… the control, the power and who holds the power.”
The truth and reconciliation process
The TRC’s final report made 94 broad recommendations, ranging from reducing the number of Indigenous children in foster care to restricting the use of mandatory minimum sentences. It also called for a statutory holiday to honour survivors and an apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.
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The federal government has promised to implement all of the calls to action. In total, as of June 30, 2021, 14 calls to action had been completed, 23 were in progress with projects underway, 37 were in progress with projects proposed, and 20 had yet to be started, according to the British Columbia Treaty Commission.
On Sept. 30, the country’s first national holiday to honour lost children and survivors of residential schools took place in the form of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
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Littlechild says “good things are happening in different sectors of society” when it comes to reconciliation efforts.
“(Some of the) pioneers in terms of leadership are the professional sports teams that we have… The (Edmonton) Oilers are leading the (National Hockey) League in that way,” he says, noting other professional sports teams are also taking part in acts of reconciliation, something he says is significant because so many people follow them.
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Littlechild also commends former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson and former Alberta premier Rachel Notley for having placed an emphasis on trying to bring about more training and education of public service workers when it comes to Indigenous history. He says Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee is doing similar things, including taking a progressive approach to training officers.
“He’s doing things internally within the force that’s really making a change,” he says. “He’s really a change agent.
“The RCMP are also making efforts.”
Littlechild also applauds faith-based groups involved in reconciliation efforts and notes while the push to have Canada adopt the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples received pushback from some in the corporate sector, that has “started to be corrected.”
“It’s really exciting, for me anyway, to see all the good unfolding,” he says.
“It’s going to take all of us really to get to where we want to be.”
Lindstrom says people need to learn how desensitization to other people’s suffering “will actually change how they function in society” and to become less driven by materialism and money.
“For reconciliation to happen there needs to be truth,” she says, acknowledging that some people may find shame in it.
“We need to sit long and hard in the truth and really make that part of the curriculum, make that part of our professional learning context.”
Littlechild says he has heard arguments from people who don’t want to address the history of residential schools where they suggest there is nothing they can do because the schools existed before they were born.
“It’s here. Let’s try to work together,” he says. “Try to find a more peaceful co-existence in a sense.”
Lindstrom says giving Indigenous people the right to self-determination is a key part of the reconciliation process.
“I believe in the possibility of a better future for all of humanity,” she says. “That is a fundamental belief system of so many Indigenous people.
“We always are hopeful and see the best in humanity… That’s why we survived so long despite attempts at our eradication, to take our land.
“We’re facing often times insurmountable odds and yet we’re still here… those are the stories that are not being told. The stories that are being told are of a crisis and all of that.”
Leddy hopes more people will seek out the work of Indigenous people expressing themselves through books, films and in theatre.
“I like to have my students look at the work of contemporary Indigenous artists,” she says. “We are learning about the history of residential schools but also about the many Indigenous Canadians who are surviving and thriving… astonishing work.”
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Littlechild also says he believes more needs to be done to celebrate contributions made by Indigenous people to Alberta and to Canada.
“The past has been negative, stereotyped stories about us, never any good contributions that we have made to the province, to the country,” he says. “A more full story needs to be told.”
He adds he has not seen Alberta’s new draft curriculum but has offered to help “validate some of the content” about the TRC.
–With files from The Canadian Press and Saba Aziz, Global News
Survivors of the residential school system can get support through Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program 24-7 crisis line by calling 1-866-925-4419.
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