Ontario survivors share their stories after recent discovery of children’s remains at former Kamloops residential school

CTV Television Network [Toronto, Canada]

June 1, 2021

By Beth Macdonell

The recent discovery of 215 childrens’ remains at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia is strengthening the resolve of survivors to share their stories about the system and educate young people.

Rounded up on her northern Ontario first nation when she was just eight years old, Susan Hunter remembers well the day she left home.

“We left in a plane. It landed on its belly in Fort Albany and then, when the hatch was opened, there were canoes to take us the rest of the way to the residential school and the students were from all over Ontario,” Susan Hunter told CTV News Toronto Tuesday.

Hunter was there for seven years, she left at age 14.

“Just when you think getting on with your life, something else crops up to mess it up again,” Hunter said. “You get re-traumatized, but you have to tell your truth.”

That truth, she said, included abuse of children from people they thought they could trust.

“It’s really the government that swept it under the carpet and it’s up to us now to educate the public,” Hunter said

Susan Hunter and friends
Susan Hunter and friends

Some families figuring out how to teach kids

The remains uncovered in Kamloops have reverberated across the country. Some Toronto families told CTV News they’re struggling with how to teach children about this horrific chapter in Canada’s history.

“We typically talk about these current events, issues around equality, justice and inclusion,” said parent Julie Wajcman. “For this topic and these findings, I haven’t wrapped my mind about an age-appropriate way to share it with my daughter.”

“I don’t think I could [teach it]. I never learned about it myself. I have no recollection of learning about it in school,” said parent Lauren Ruf.

Laurie Okimawinew left, Susan Hunter right. (Courtesy of Beth MacDonell / CTV News Toronto)
Laurie Okimawinew left, Susan Hunter right. (Courtesy of Beth MacDonell / CTV News Toronto)

Sharing stories about residential schools with children

Laurie Okimawinew’s mother, along with aunts and uncles, went to residential schools and experiences the inter-generational trauma from their time in the system. Torture and sexual abuse are extremely difficult topics.

Hunter and Okimawinew have both spoken with children in schools and believe there is a way to approach them.

“We tell them just imagine being taken away from their parents, that image alone, I know they feel it. That’s all I will get into detail with them. That leaves an impact in itself,” said Okimawinew.

The Ministry of Education said, since 2019, topics like residential schools have been mandatory parts of the curriculum from grades four to eight, as well as grade ten.

Okimawinew is a resolution health support coordinator with Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. She wants places for people to interact with Indigenous people. A spirit garden is being planned to honour residential school survivors at Nathan Phillips Square in 2023.

She also recommends stories for children — like Phyllis’ Orange Shirt.

“[Phyllis] didn’t know that orange shirt was going to be taken away from her and that she would have to change and be something she wasn’t and change her language,” said Okimawinew.