With the help of the Mounties, the priests piled the children into boats and floated away

Canada's National Observer

June 30, 2021

By Karyn Pugliese aka Pabàmàdiz

Warning: The information and material here may trigger unpleasant feelings or thoughts of past abuse. Please contact the 24-hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 if you require emotional support.

An elder told me a story. It goes like this.

It was long ago and late summer in a remote northern village. A Cree village. Everyone still lived in tents. One day priests visited. They announced that the next time they came, they would take the children. It would be for the best, they explained. The children would go to school. The priests left, and some short time later — maybe a week, maybe two — they returned. This time, the Mounties came with them. The Mounties wore red coats, black boots and each Mountie wore a belt with a gun. The priests did as they’d promised. With the help of the Mounties, they piled the children into boats and floated away.

That evening, the villagers made their fires, cooked supper and ate in silence.

Their world was silent.

No children played or laughed.

No children quarrelled or cried.

The quiet became unbearable.

The sun had not yet set, but they crept into their tents anyway.

Soon a sob broke the silence. It was a woman crying.

Then another sob.

Then another woman.

The sun sank orange, the yellow moon rose, and all night long the only sound heard in the village was mothers crying.

“The schools were never meant to do us any good,” the elder told me. “They knew. They knew that when you break the hearts of our women, you break the strength of our nations.”

Paul Barnsley has spent 25 years covering news for Indigenous-owned media, and it is widely agreed he’s done a damn good job of it. He’s not Indigenous himself.

He covered the police killing of the unarmed Dudley George at Ipperwash Park his first year on the job. Then, the police takedown of Sun Dancers who were holding spiritual ceremonies near Gustafsen Lake, B.C. Both events unfolded in 1995 and changed the way he understood Canada.

“I had no idea. …every time I went out, I’d say, ‘No, no, this can’t happen in Canada,’” he said.

He described the experience like “going through the looking glass.”

Paul’s words came back to me recently: Through the looking glass. A reference to a world where things are not as they should be. Where known rules no longer apply.

Through the looking glass.

Two hundred fifteen graves outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Seven hundred fifty-one unmarked graves near the site of the old Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

More yet to be found.

This is the world on the Indigenous side of the looking glass.

Kerry Benjoe of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation is a journalist who works at CBC. She attended the Lebret (Qu’Appelle) Indian Industrial Residential School in Saskatchewan. So did her mother, her grandmother and great-grandmother.

“At the signing of the treaties, one of the negotiations was for a little red brick schoolhouse on every reserve. And what we got was residential schools. And I think they were purposely built with these bricks, these red bricks,” she told CBC in a recent appearance on Newsnet.

Every one of the 11 numbered treaties signed between 1871 and 1922 promised to build schools on-reserve at the request of First Nations leaders. In that interview, Kerry showed a broken red brick left over from her school, which had been torn down. She says it’s symbolic of an unkept promise.

Every time she feels the weight of that brick, Kerry must imagine how different life might have been for four generations of women, if only…

Perhaps we should stop calling these institutions schools. It’s misleading. Schools are built to teach. There may have been individual teachers with good intentions. There may have been individuals attending these institutions who benefitted. But any benefit was a side-effect. The system was designed to erase us.

A group of students in front of the Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Sask., in March 1973. Photo via Library and Archives Canada
A group of students in front of the Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Sask., in March 1973. Photo via Library and Archives Canada

Sir John A. Macdonald explained in 1883: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian.”

Understanding the legacy of residential institutions is important, not just for the harm that policy caused. But because every policy, every program, every law aimed at Indigenous people over the same hundred-year period was shaped by the same attitudes of racial superiority. Poor water, shoddy housing, underfunded schools, child welfare. Unresolved land claims that led to standoffs with police. Residential schools were not an exception in government policy. They were the rule.

There will always be residential school deniers. They insist some children had good experiences at the institutions who are now being silenced. They argue violence against children was normal at the time. They say schools were well intentioned.

Yes, some survivors had good experiences at the schools, but they have not been silenced. Their stories are also in the TRC report. It’s just that there are comparatively few. The numbers tell us this. Almost 80,000 survivors received a common experience payment and 38,000 survivors received compensation for physical abuse, confinement, or sexual abuse through the independent assessment process (IAP). And that violence was not normal. To qualify for compensation through the IAP, harm had to exceed the norms of the day. The government’s own officials frequently described what they witnessed as abuse.

And there are the children who cannot speak for themselves. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a report in 1907, stating that in a survey of 15 schools, 25 per cent of the students died of tuberculosis. The worst school had a death rate of 69 per cent. One reverend at the Presbyterian Church, R.P. MacKay, called the schools “death traps.”

All through the generations, abusers were rarely removed, and Dr. Bryce’s report was buried.

To those who would say, “It was a long time ago”: It wasn’t. The impacts of the schools are still seen and felt in our communities every day.

For those willing to accept the truth, Canada is not the country they thought they knew. And they are trying to come to grips with it.

There have been calls to tear down statues or rename schools bearing the names of Sir John A., Egerton Ryerson and others. Some Canadians don’t feel like celebrating Canada Day this year.

Naysayers call this cancel culture. It is not. This is the righting of history, what happens when the whole story is known.

I think it’s healthy for communities to ask if there’s any pride left in historic figures like Sir John A. and if it’s time to honour others more deserving.

I support people’s right to reflect quietly about the whole history of the country on Canada Day. There are good things about Canada that deserve to be celebrated. But Confederation has not been good for Indigenous people, and the TRC asks you to acknowledge that.

Reconciliation is not about guilt. Few people living today had the knowledge or power to stop what was happening. You didn’t do anything wrong. All of us are trapped and living with the same history. The question is, what will we do about it?

If you didn’t like what you saw when you stepped through the looking glass, you can change it.

This opportunity is precious, fragile, and it almost didn’t happen.

I worry about what will happen if it fails.

Updates and corrections, July 2, 2021, 09:09 am

This story has been corrected to reflect that Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce’s report was written in 1907