Two weeks after the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, the Grand Council of the Cree has demanded full cooperation from governments and organizations to support healing in Eeyou Istchee.
“Words will not be enough as the bodies of more children are unearthed,” said Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “We will need to honour all of these brave students. Cree leadership is committed to leading the efforts to investigate the residential schools on our territory and we will need access to information from the religious orders that managed them.”
There are plans to search and document the two residential school sites on Fort George Island, guided by local groups and Elders to ensure no unnecessary harm is caused during the work. Cree leaders asked governments to assist local groups upon request and to be included in any legislation for establishing public archives of missing or deceased Indigenous persons.
As Indigenous communities across Canada embark upon similar initiatives, proposed investigations with ground-penetrating radar at Chisasibi’s former location are seen as an important opportunity to set the standard for respecting this “solemn obligation” to children and families.
“The knowledge that the remains of children taken from distant homes will be found on grounds in our community is almost too much to bear,” said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. “Moving forward will not only be the challenge of documenting the past but of commemorating these sites in a way that captures the love and compassion we feel for all children who attended, for their families and communities.”
In recent years, community members have held annual gatherings on the island to share their experiences. The Cree Nation highlighted the need for traditional treatment facilities to respond to the deep scars resulting from the Kamloops discovery and the prospect of finding the remains of more children at other sites.
“The legacy of damage caused by residential schools has left our families and communities in pain which need help far beyond the capacity of any one organization,” stated Bertie Wapachee, chair of the Cree health board. “Our land is a healing land, and it does not make sense that in 2021, we still do not have a land-based treatment facility or programs needed to help our people manage old wounds.”
The Mîniwȃchihwȃukimikw Land-Based Healing Lodge is now slated to open as early as 2023 near Chisasibi, offering a year-round base for healing in a traditional setting for adults with dependency issues. Wapachee would like to see further investment into training programs for developing local healthcare capacity, particularly mental health specialists.
With intergenerational trauma reflected in disproportionate substance abuse, incarceration, youth protection, chronic illness and other repercussions, Wapachee believes that proposed treatment programs will need to collaborate with the appropriate justice, housing and education institutions to effectively heal these complex emotional wounds.
The discovery in Kamloops moved Cree leaders to emphasize that the impact of residential schools extends far beyond the pain suffered by former students. With parents and communities left without the vibrant voices of children for 11 months of each year, locals still remember the wave of crying that would spread from tent to tent after the children were taken away.
“When you take one of our children, you do profound damage to the soul of our community,” explained House. “What do I say to a grandmother, who to this day gets upset when we disturb the footprints of a child, because during the most painful time in her life all she could do was preserve the footprints of her children as long as she could?”
As residential school survivors often sheltered their children from the abuse they experienced, leaders intend to help youth better understand this painful legacy with curriculum and program development from a trauma-informed approach. The Grand Chief, who attended La Tuque residential school, acknowledged the desire to protect youth from past trauma but said their strength and resilience should not be underestimated.
“I held a lot of anger for many years against my mother, thinking she had failed me letting me be taken away and mistreated,” admitted Bosum. “It would be years later as a parent and a grandfather that I only began to understand the depth of pain and suffering. The youth of today deserve as much as the youth of yesterday; answers, explanations and resources to build a better tomorrow free from the terrible shadows of the past.”
While education was the pretext for the “institutionalized abduction of children”, it is also seen as the cornerstone for healing and reconciliation. This past year, the Cree School Board launched a revised history curriculum with a new residential school study unit, which covers its racist origins and stories from local survivors before bringing students full circle towards self-empowerment.
“Education is a sacred obligation of all societies, and we must ensure that the curricula across the country properly arm all students with lessons from the past,” asserted CSB chairperson Sarah Pashagumskum. “The lens through which history is viewed must be redefined for Canadians to learn stark truths, understand our present situation and take responsibility for authentic actions of reconciliation.”
The CSB’s new curriculum and accompanying toolkit designed specifically for non-Indigenous educators could become a valuable resource for Quebec’s education ministry, which has been widely criticized for ignoring or downplaying Indigenous history. However, Pashagumskum insisted that public education must transcend schools.
In addition to sharing both the important contributions and injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples in adult education centres, professional orders and immigration ministries, Cree leaders called for the establishment of an Indian Residential School Museum in both Montreal and Quebec City.
Similar to Montreal’s Holocaust Museum, these proposed institutions could help ensure this dark chapter of world history is not forgotten or repeated. Rather than simply displaying the horrors of these schools, Pashagumskum suggested a safe and solemn place where Indigenous parents and youths can come to understand the past by imagining themselves in such oppressive circumstances.
“Museums have the power to assert our common humanity even when actions of genocide or dehumanization have taken place,” Pashagumskum stated. “It will be through personal realizations like this that the healing and strengthening bonds of empathy will be built between all peoples.”