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A collection of residential-school reminiscences captures the heartache of separation and loss

BY Joshua Loon Apr 21, 2023

Emily Rabbitskin was washing dishes at home in Mistissini when her cellphone rang. The caller asked her if she could be part of a project that would help many survivors of residential schools.

Rabbitskin dropped everything she was doing. She sat at the kitchen table, and tears began to flow. She remembered the promise she made more than 50 years ago. After calming down, she took a deep breath and wiped her tears, pretending nothing had happened. She whispered to herself: “It is time to tell what happened.”

The story is retold in E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin (Towards well-being), a collection of personal accounts by James Bay Cree storytellers written by Ruth DyckFehderau that was published in March.

In the book, Rabbitskin recounts her close relationship with her late twin Juliette. They were more than best friends, she says. Growing up with her, Emily knew how to communicate with Juliette, who was deaf and mute and suffered from Down syndrome, though it wasn’t diagnosed at the time.

Juliette and Emily were nine years old when they were sent to residential school. Caroline Shecapio, Emily’s older sister, was with them when they got in a floatplane. Caroline still remembers the moment; Juliette’s father, William, yelled out to Caroline, saying, “Make sure both of you take care of our special daughter and bring her back.” 

Caroline often wonders why she remembers that moment and William’s words. Maybe the universe wanted to tell her something, or it was just a coincidence.

In the spring of 1966, Juliette passed away, still aged nine, in La Tuque due to complications of an outbreak of a virus at the school she attended. After more than five decades, Caroline and Emily are now finally telling Juliette’s story.

Emily and Caroline never made it to Juliette’s funeral. They were both sick because of the virus outbreak. However, Emily and her brother, Morley, went to La Tuque Cemetery to visit Juliette’s grave. They couldn’t find it. They searched everywhere, and they were about to give up when Emily saw a grave from a distance all alone. She asked her brother to check it, and Morley said it was Juliette.

“I cried so much because this hurt me; her grave was all alone,” said Emily, who made a promise as she stood beside the grave. “We are going to bring you home.”

Caroline still feels emotional when she tells her side of the story. She sat on her bed to read her part in E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin story book. “I could not go further because it was too painful; I remember everything that happened,” she said.

One of Caroline’s granddaughters resembles Juliette’s character – she is kind, soft, gentle and loves everyone. “My granddaughter brings love into the family; she brings a family together; Juliette was like that too,” said Caroline.

Kathleen Rabbitskin was Juliette’s younger sister. She first attended residential school in 1969, three years after Juliette had passed. Even though she went to the same school for years, no one ever told her she had another sister, and her grave was only a 10-minute walk away. 

When Kathleen was 19, she overheard Emily and Caroline talking about someone who resembled the late Juliette and asked who that was. They responded that Juliette was her older sister.

This boggled Kathleen’s mind, and she began to wonder what had happened to her older sister and why her parents had never told her. “I did not want to ask my parents because it is too painful for them,” said Kathleen.

When Kathleen was young, she remembered her parents used to be very affectionate toward one girl who lived in the neighbourhood; they would hug her and buy her toys. Kathleen thinks the girl reminded them of Juliette.

Then, when Kathleen gave birth to a daughter, she named her Juliet. “When I first held my baby, the only name I could think of was Juliette,” she said.

Reverend Bruce Myers is the Anglican Bishop of Quebec. He attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2013 as a representative of the Anglican Church. He first heard the story about Juliette from another Mistissini community member, Mary Coon-Come.

In May 2021, unmarked graves at an old residential school in British Columbia made national news. Myers saw the information and wanted to check if his district had a similar situation.

“There was something about what happened in Kamloops in the spring of 2021 that just seemed to bring it to the attention of non-Indigenous Canadians in a way that it never had before,” said Myers.

He remembered the story of Juliette that he had heard at the TRC and wanted to do something about it. “One of the TRC’s 94 calls to action was to help bring the remains of children who died at residential schools to their home communities,” Myers noted. “I asked our archivist for our diocese to go through our archives again to make sure that there were no other deaths at the school that may not have been recorded.”

Myers checked to ensure Juliette’s grave was marked with a proper headstone with her name in English and Cree syllabics. He confirmed that everything at La Tuque Church about her death and funeral was recorded correctly.

Myers wanted to contact the Rabbitskin family but didn’t know how. He got in touch with an Anglican priest in Mistissini, Reverend George Westgate, to ask him to approach the Rabbitskin family to see if they would like to discuss bringing Juliette home.

“The response was almost immediate, positive, and it was yes,” said Myers.

He also contacted government authorities to ask for help with the exhumation. It has since been confirmed, but the exact date is not set. Myers hopes this process will bring healing and closure.

Myers wants to formally apologize to the family and the broader community because many people from Mistissini and the James Bay Cree found their way to residential schools.

The Anglican Church was involved, and he wanted to express his regret because he believed Juliette’s death at such a young age was likely preventable if she had not travelled to La Tuque to attend that school and fall victim to an infectious illness.

“Who knows how long she might have lived if she had been able to stay in her community with her family,” Myers mused.

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