WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in B.C. has opened up old wounds for Nancy Deleary, an artist from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
It has also made many Indigenous communities, including here in southwestern Ontario, call for a deeper look at the grounds of now-closed residential schools, which children were forced to attend. Many died at the schools.
“The news of this coming out forced me to stop and reflect and think back about what happened to our people,” she told CBC News. “It’s so sad, because I know our people suffered at the hands of those that ran [residential] schools and you can’t fathom what they would have gone through.”
Many students in this region attended the Mount Elgin Industrial School (also called the Mount Elgin Indian Residential School). It was located on what is now land owned by Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
“Canada needs to go to all these former sites of residential schools and they need to perform these [ground surveys] because there are children that went missing and who were killed and they were buried without anybody knowing and from the stories that I heard, that same thing happened on my First Nation,” Deleary said.
Memories of schools linger
Deleary, who works as a cultural coordinator for the First Nation, has dedicated part of her life to honouring survivors of residential schools through her artwork.
She’s listened to countless stories from survivors and has seen firsthand some of the devastating effects of residential schools, where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were ripped from their culture and families and lived in horrible conditions and forced to assimilate in Euro-Canadian culture.
“I had grandmothers who had such a hard life that they didn’t have a lot of energy to spend on their grandchildren,” said Deleary, reflecting on her childhood spent with grandmothers who both attended the former Mount Elgin Industrial School, just southwest of London, Ont.
“My aunts, the ones who went to residential schools, they were severely affected because they had high anxiety. They couldn’t be open and they couldn’t be loving and they couldn’t be caring because they were nervous all the time. My uncles, they lashed out against society for what had happened to them in residential school and they were angry and we saw the fallout.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said more supports for residential school survivors are coming following the discovery of the children’s remains on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. The children, some as young as three years old, were undocumented deaths, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said.
Deleary wants more action to be taken, locally. At least 4,100 children died while at these schools across Canada — more than one in 50 students — and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates the actual toll could be 6,000 or higher.
Northwest of Deleary’s home, the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, near Sarnia, Ont., is calling for the same thing.
On Sunday, the First Nation set up a memorial in which people were asked to bring a pair of children shoes to mark the 215 lives that were lost. As of Monday afternoon, are were more than 400 pairs of shoes on the site.
“People were asking if [we would stop once we reached 215] and I said no because we don’t know how many [children] there still are. That was the first big mass grave that they found, but there are several sites in Canada that still have to be looked at,” said Kim Bressette, the family well-being coordinator with Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.
‘Nobody spoke about it’
Bressette and Deleary both said the deep wounds left by the lasting impacts of residential school weren’t really talked about.
“It wasn’t something that they were willing or open to speak about,” Deleary said of her relatives who attended.
In 2008, the federal government apologized to former residential school students and the government admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Deleary said that marked a turning point.
“It’s only been since 2008 that everybody’s been talking about residential schools. Before that, I think that it had an air of shame that came with it. Nobody spoke of the residential schools. I know my grandmother didn’t,” she said.
Afternoon Drive7:42Chippewas of Kettle & Stony Point First Nation speak on the undocumented gravesite in Kamloops
Bressette said she only learned a few years ago about the full extent of residential schools and noted many children in the community aren’t aware.
“This is a start to [people] understanding and having more education on [residential schools],” she said. “[Education] has been needed for years.”
More than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1996.
Over the years, Deleary has created several art pieces honouring residential school survivors, including two monuments outside the former Mount Elgin Industrial School, in hopes of creating awareness about the impact these schools had on Indigenous people.
“I heard the survivors, when they said that this shouldn’t happen to any other child ever again, what they went through. They said what the teachers, the principal, the priests and the nuns, what they had done to them should never, ever happen to another child again.”
“We have to remember what happened to them so that we won’t let this sneak up on us again.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.