‘Modicum of justice’ for residential school dead

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Ceremony participants form a procession. Photo: Leigh Anne Williams

The three Anglicans who represented the church at a ceremony last fall honouring children who died in Canada’s Indian residential schools say they hope it will begin a process whereby the suffering of Indigenous children will be fully recognized by Canadians.

The ceremony, organized by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), was held Sept. 30—Orange Shirt Day—at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital. Former residential school students, family, friends and dignitaries gathered for the presentation of a 50-metre-long piece of red cloth bearing the names of 2,800 children who did not return from the residential schools. The event also featured speeches, musical and dance performances and prayer.

Attending the event for the Anglican Church of Canada were Mark MacDonald, national Indigenous Anglican archbishop; Lydia Mamakwa, bishop of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh; and Melanie Delva, the church’s reconciliation animator.

“Finally there’s a modicum of justice for the little ones and their families—a recognition, and perhaps now those children can rest in peace,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald said the presentation of the red cloth hit him especially powerfully.

“There have only been a few times in my life when I felt like that,” he said. “I felt this tremendous amount of…compassion for the young people, and the genocidal aspects of it become clear in that moment.”

Asked if this was because of the fact that the victims were children, MacDonald replied, “I used to visit communities when I started. They would always bring me to the cemetery at the residential schools. What kind of schools need cemeteries? That really lays bare the pain and evil that—I realize that there were many good people and many good intentions involved with it but, you know a school system that kills that many children is very problematic.”

The presentation of the cloth, he said, was made still more poignant by the fact that the list of names it bore was not complete. The NCTR believes a total of roughly 4,200 children died at the schools, but the Winnipeg-based organization is still working to identify them all.

“It was very sombre and moving to see all of the names—sad to think that they don’t have all of them,” MacDonald said. “But maybe this is the beginning of getting a final accounting, a beginning…of recognizing the personalities and the suffering of these poor young people.”

Mamakwa also said the event left her with deep and mixed emotions—again, partly because of the missing names.

“There was a feeling of grief, as I saw the names being carried in, knowing that some families have not had any closure—and not knowing what happened to their child must be a hard thing to carry,” she said. Some families, she said, still don’t even know where their relatives are buried.

But Mamakwa said she also felt glad that steps were being taken to acknowledge the deaths of Indigenous children at the schools.

Awareness of the residential schools, she added, needs to be raised—and not only among non-Indigenous Canadians.

“We still have a lot of work to do in terms of educating our people,” she said. “Our children don’t know the history of the residential schools, or not all of them do…. On my reserve, I think this was the first time they had an Orange Shirt Day…and kids were asking what it was for. A lot of education is to be done, not just in non-Indigenous society, but everywhere.”

In recent years, students and staff in many Canadian schools have been wearing orange shirts every Sept. 30 to mark the legacy of the Indian residential school system. The orange shirts are in memory of Phyllis Webstad, a former residential school student. Webstad’s orange shirt—a gift from her grandmother—was taken from her on her first day at a B.C. residential school in 1976, and never returned.

Delva also said the event affected her powerfully, despite knowledge of residential school abuses she had accumulated over the years. (Before taking up her current role with the Anglican Church of Canada in 2017, Delva served as archivist for the diocese of New Westminster, working extensively in the collection of residential school-related documents.)

“I spent over a decade immersed in the death of residential school children, and even for me it changed something,” she said. “It was much more than an intellectual exercise…. I think it impacted people in a way that speeches, or op-eds or other things just don’t.”

Delva, too, said it was “heartbreaking” to know that many families were likely asking why their relatives who died in the residential school system weren’t on the list.

The reasons for the incompleteness of the list, she said, are complex. During part of the time when the residential schools were run, a certain form would have been completed and sent to the federal government when a child died at a residential school. But this process, even during the years when it was in effect, was not always followed, creating gaps in the records. The archives of the churches involved in the residential school system, however, contain information not always found in government records. The NCTR has been examining both government and church sources, but with a limited amount of staff.

Delva’s past archival work involved her researching the records of St. George’s School in Lytton, B.C., a residential school that operated from 1902 to 1979. Building a list of all the children who died at the school was difficult because their deaths were not always recorded, she said.

“There were deaths that I found that were recorded nowhere else but in the ‘Notes’ column of a service register: ‘Buried a St. George’s child.’ Not even a name,” she said. “I was able to match it with a name based on some correspondence that I found later, but that’s the kind of in-depth research that’s needed in order to do this work.”

Trying to build a more complete list of the names of the dead children, Delva says, is about much more than just having more facts—as might be suggested by reflection on scripture.

“There were so many times when Jesus speaks the name of someone at this crucial point in their life. When Mary meets Jesus in the garden, the moment of recognition comes when he says her name,” she said. “There’s a recognition of humanity when someone is named…. You are no longer a concept, you are no longer a number in a final report.

“There’s such a power in names, which is why it’s so important that we continue this work so that as many names are spoken as possible.”

That said, there’s yet another sadness to the list of names, Delva added. Especially in the case of children who died during the earlier years of the residential school system, the names recorded for them were often not even their real names, because in many cases, school administrators anglicized their Indigenous names.

Most of the children died of disease, Delva said, but some died from abuse or neglect. Others died during attempts to run away, succumbing to the elements as they tried to find their way home. There’s another category of children who seem to have simply disappeared, the cause of their deaths likely to remain forever a mystery.

On Sept. 24, a few days before the ceremony, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, released, jointly with MacDonald, a pastoral statement on the soon-to-be-released list, including an invitation to pray for the children. The same day, the church released a call from MacDonald for four days of prayer in advance of the ceremony. Delva said she was heartened by people’s response.

“Clergy in Uruguay emailed me to say that they were praying,” she said. “Clergy in Nova Scotia told me about ringing their church bell 100 times and praying daily.”

A copy of the list was placed by the altar in the chapel at the church’s national office.

Whatever decision the church takes on what else to do with the list, she said, will come from Indigenous people themselves. Both the NCTR and the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, she said, have made clear that future use of the list must involve ceremony and prayer.

Delva said she hopes the list will spur Canadians not only to reflect on the past but consider injustices she believes continue to beset the country’s Indigenous children.

“What I hope comes of this is not just to say, ‘Never again,’ but to look at the ways that it’s still happening,” she said. “We are still failing Indigenous children, and Indigenous children are dying because they don’t have clean water, because they’re neglected in care. So for me, that’s an important portion of lament…to say, not just in words, ‘Never again,’ but in action.”

Speaking at the event, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde also addressed the future as well as the past.

“The residential school system was a genocide of First Nations peoples, forcibly removing children from their homes and inflicting harm and inflicting pain,” he said. “We still feel the intergenerational trauma of that genocide. We see it every day in our communities.”

But Bellegarde said there is hope now and talk of being not only survivors, but “thrivers.” “The people are standing up…. We are starting to thrive and be proud of who we are as Indigenous peoples.”

“On Sept. 30, every child matters,” said Bellegarde. “We can’t change the past, but we all can be part of changing the future and building a better country. That’s what today is all about.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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