The story of what happened to the lives of 215 children who lie in unmarked graves in Kamloops, British Columbia is one that is very familiar to many Indigenous families across Canada. Here are two stories I know well from the James Bay coast.
A ten year old girl and her sisters are forced to join some adults and other children to board a float plane in the northern wilderness of the west coast of James Bay. It’s a strange new experience for this little girl who has only ever known life on the remote Nawashi River with her family. She is frightened by the other children who sniffle and cry around her and she is afraid of not knowing what is going to happen next as this huge bird takes them into the clouds. She and her sisters are taken to Fort George in Quebec to attend a residential school where they will spend many months away from their families to learn the ways of the white man, his language and his religion. They would return home in the summer only to be taken again in the fall.
A seven year old boy and his younger brother are led away from their parents in Attawapiskat under the restrained cries of their mother and the quiet obedience of their father. As they are walked further from their parents, they begin to realize that they are leaving and they cry at the thought of being taken away. For the next few years these boys would repeat this separation from their parents every autumn to attend the infamous St Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany.
These are the stories of my parents, my late mother Susan (Paulmartin-Rose) Kataquapit and my late father Marius Kataquapit. Their days at these schools were filled with lessons on how to read and write in English and French and most of all, the study of the Christian Catholic religion. Every memory of their past lives was discouraged, disparaged and disregarded. They were taught that they were worthless and that they needed to become like the teachers, the nuns and the priests they endured every day.
There is far more to their tragic stories at these schools but I will never know nor do I really want to know. Mom’s experiences paled in comparison to what happened to my father at St Anne’s. Dad never spoke of his experiences until the last few years of his life because it was a source of shame for him. He had spent his entire life repressing and ignoring these terrible memories and when it was required of him to make a statement of his experiences the terrors returned.
I grew up in Attawapiskat around many family members who had attended St Anne’s Residential school and the residential schools in Fort George, Quebec. As a child of survivors of the residential school system, it was confusing to say the least. No one told us direct stories, but as children we all heard of their experiences here and there over the years that painted a terrible picture.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I took the time to learn and study on my own what this history was about. No school I ever attended taught any of this history. In fact history documents that in the late 1800s, the government of Canada was slowly expanding across the land and as it did so, it encountered Indigenous people everywhere. Strategically the power of the time thought these so called savages had to be dealt with. The government saw Indigenous nations as obstacles that had to be removed because they wanted access to all the riches of the lands in Canada.
My people who were nomadic were pushed onto small tracks of land but that was not enough to satisfy the government. They developed plans to assimilate Indigenous people into European Canadian society. Residential schools were created as a way to remove children from their parents and teach them separately away from home with the goal of ‘removing the Indian’ inside of them. They were in fact kidnapped.
One of the creators of this system was Duncan Campbell Scott, federal Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs who is famously quoted as saying “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department”
The fact that these federal leaders wanted to forcibly assimilate a people by kidnapping their children is terrible enough, now it has come to light that the government of Canada knew fully that these residential schools were essentially death traps for the children that attended.
Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada’s first chief officer of medical health from 1904 to 1921 reported during his tenure with government that residential schools were essentially breeding grounds for disease especially tuberculosis for the children that lived in these places. The government ignored these repeated reports and the recommendations to deal with the reality of forcing children to live in confined spaces, in large groups and with little medical support or care.
The government of Canada understood what was happening. They had planned for children to be placed in these horrendous situations and turned a blind eye when they started to die. Dr. Bryce’s reports described how on average a quarter of the child population of these residential schools died as a result of disease. That translates into thousands of children across the country.
The majority of preventable deaths may have been from disease but there are still the deaths that resulted from the physical and sexual abuse that was prevalent in these institutions. Schools were run by individuals that didn’t want to do this work, held racist attitudes against the children in their care and they were not held accountable by anyone. There was little reporting on how a child died or even where they were buried. Parents were not notified of deaths in a timely fashion and sometimes not at all.
When one discovers the history as to what was the ultimate goal of government, it’s clear to see that Canada wanted to remove Indigenous people either through death or assimilation. It was in fact an act of genocide and a purposeful attempt to destroy and remove an ethnic group of people.
The attitude and indifference of the government of Canada over the past 100 and more years has left Indigenous communities traumatized. If their goal was to eliminate Indians, the result was only a long line of broken people who went on to raise children who inherited the trauma and pain of their parents.
As a child of two parents who were residential school survivors, it is deeply distressing for me to keep repeating these stories of tragedy, abuse, murder and the needless deaths of so many children. I am still lost in the generational trauma and it pains me to see governments still holding back on dealing honestly with this issue, settling our treaties and dedicating efforts to make life better for so many still suffering and coping with this genocide in our country. It is time to unearth the truth and honour all of those lives lost and the suffering experienced by little girls like my mother Susan, and little boys like my father Marius.