Warning: This week’s column is written about the residential school system and features accounts of violence, child abuse and death. Keep that in mind - while I hope you read it, I know some people “can’t go there” and I promise I won’t judge you if you skip this one.
Two hundred and fifteen children.
That is stuck in my head - been there since late last week and it won’t leave.
You likely know what I’m talking about. Last week, mass graves were found on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The bodies of two hundred and fifteen children were found in the dirt.
Two hundred and fifteen children.
By now, we all know broad strokes of the residential school system, but for some, that image is vague. It can be easy for people, especially non-Indigenous people like myself, to see what happened in Kamloops and feel that nothing like that could have happened here.
It’s easy to see residential schools as a bygone relic, ignoring that the last such place shut down in 1996 and similar facilities stayed open even after that.
It did happen here. It happened on our doorstep.
There were five residential schools in northern Manitoba - one near The Pas, one in Cross Lake, two in Norway House and one in Churchill. There was a sixth school at Sturgeon Landing - about 55 kilometres straight south of Flin Flon.
The Sturgeon Landing Residential School opened in 1926. Thanks to the memories of children who survived this place - too many to list here - we know what kids went through during the school’s 26 years.
Jane Glennon went there and wrote about her experiences for the website Media Indigena. Glennon, who later worked as a social worker and teacher, is a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and grew up in northern Saskatchewan.
She recalls the nuns at the school throwing away her clothes on arrival, giving the kids dark uniforms and a number in place of a name - Glennon became “32”. The children were deloused in coal oil and DDT - which was banned almost worldwide in the ‘70s and ‘80s because of how toxic it was. The food was rotten. The children were often beaten. No child could speak their own language for fear of a beating.
Other stories came from Augie Merasty, who wrote about his experiences at the school in his book The Education of Augie Merasty. Augie lived in the Flin Flon area sometimes as an adult - several people in his family still do.
Merasty shares stories of the school that include flat-out physical and sexual abuse. One involves him and another boy each losing one of their mittens - they were made to walk 20 miles in the cold to find them. When both came up empty handed after hours of searching, the nuns gave both boys the strap.
“I want them [readers] to know what really happened in those schools," Merasty once told a Globe and Mail reporter.
“That was one of the basic reasons I wrote that book … so it won't happen again.”
Several times during the school’s existence, illness swept through the school, which was described as “woefully overcrowded”. We don’t know exactly what each epidemic was, but evidence suggests an outbreak in 1951 was tuberculosis.
“[There is] a rather serious epidemic which has affected 19 boys of various ages. This may turn out to be tuberculosis…” reads an archived letter.
Glennon recounted how kids would desperately try to hide their coughs because they feared a beating by the nuns.
“I remember vividly how sick children had to suppress their coughing at night for fear a nun would come along and give you the belt. I remember this one big, mean nun — Kimâmânaw, as some of the girls called her, or ‘our mother’ in Cree... I distinctly remember how this Sister once grabbed a girl by the hair, then banged her head on the cement basement floor of our so-called ‘playroom,’” she wrote.
By the time the school burned down in 1952, 43 kids (that we know of) died there. Most of the time, their families weren’t even told - their son or daughter would just not come home.
We know some of those children’s names - Helen Bear, Elie Caribou, Abraham Bighetty, Elizabeth Rat, just to name four picked at random from the dead. We know about Rat’s death, as the letter detailing her 1939 death still survives in a Univ. of Regina archive.
“I wrote to the parents this last Wednesday and told them that their girl was very sick, though the case was not yet desperate. I had in mind to send her to the hospital by plain [sic] Wednesday, but she was too weak already and to call the doctor, it was impossible,” reads the letter, sent by the school’s principal.
“I regret this happened in the school, but we have to take it as it comes, after having done our best.”
I show more remorse than that when I misspell something in work emails.
Over the weekend, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), Saskatchewan’s largest Indigenous group, called for ground radar searches of several residential schools, saying there may be mass graves. Sturgeon Landing is mentioned as a possible mass grave site.
This is terrifying and not something most people want to think about - but we cannot afford to forget it. You cannot reconcile without knowing the truth. The survivors’ accounts are the truth. We know thousands of kids were killed in this system and we are still finding bodies.
The legacy of these schools can still be felt. Joyce Echaquan, mocked in her dying moments in hospital; babies taken from their mothers moments after birth; a Manitoba foster care system where almost 90 per cent of the kids within are Indigenous; the Sixties Scoop, starlight tours, segregated schools, poverty, poor health care and education, water unsafe to drink, food unsafe to eat, the long and ever-growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and an establishment that continues to let this happen. The list of abuses faced by Indigenous people, just in the last century, is so long that I literally could not fit all of it within the page my column is printed on.
Canada cannot afford to forget the truth.
The number for the National Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. The line is open 24 hours per day and is meant to provide support for people affected by residential schools.
This column appeared in the June 2, 2021 issue of The Reminder.