For over a century, 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in government-sponsored residential schools. The goal was to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. Six thousand children died as a result of these actions, and the ripples have been felt by generations of families and children. Every child matters.
That’s why we recognize Orange Shirt Day and honour residential school survivors and remember those who never returned home.
This year staff, students and friends of kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre shared their stories and connections to residential schools, reminding us that residential schools aren’t a part of Canada’s distant history. Residential schools existed into the 1990s, when many MacEwan students were babies and children; the last school closed in 1996.
Here, we share those photos and stories:
My Dad is a residential school survivor. He was sent to Blue Quills Residential School at a very young age, forced to not speak his language and given a number instead of a name. He didn’t have an easy life there. It’s his story and not mine to tell.
Decades later, I graduated from university in that very same place. In the 1970s, Blue Quills was taken over by First Nations community members who had our future generations in mind. Today it is an Indigenous-owned and -run university with language and ceremony intertwined in its programs.
I remember standing with my eagle feather and my degree in my hands and thinking, “This is my resistance.” I had connected back to who I was as an Indigenous woman. It was empowering. And I had done what I felt I needed to do to honour my dad. I have immense gratitude for our ancestors who had us children in mind when they fought for us.
My father suffered in residential school because the government’s mandate was to assimilate the First Nations children into western society. It was an act of genocide. As a daughter of a residential school survivor and as a Cree woman who briefly attended that last open residential school, there is intergenerational trauma and trauma that comes from the grief and loss that my family has experienced.
Orange Shirt Day is about honouring the children who lost their lives in residential school and embracing those who survived. It’s about creating opportunities to educate those who have little knowledge about the history of residential schools and how the colonial violence continues to impact our communities today. This day brings people together in a collective effort to learn, heal and build relationships across this country.
–Terri Suntjens, Cree, kâ-nêkânêstahk iyiniw pamihtamowina – Director of Indigenous Initiatives, MacEwan University
Rita Joe has been an inspiration to me since I first read her work in Grade 11. I had a history teacher who introduced me to her poetry. I was so proud that she was Mi’kmaq and I loved how she wrote. I didn’t know anything about residential schools at the time, so I asked my mother and other family members. I remember that no one really wanted to talk about it. I started looking for information on my own, but I mostly credit Rita Joe’s writing for my initial learning about residential schools.
"I Lost My Talk"
By Rita Joe
I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.
— Krista Hanscomb, Mi'kmaq, Community Engagement Coordinator/Student Advisor, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
The Indian residential school system has affected my family in so many ways for five generations. One thing I can say is that our spirit was never broken. Sure it had and has pieces missing, but it is not completely broken. With resilience, love and the strength of prayer we have survived and overcome the system. Although we won’t be able to go back to the old ways and to the way things were, we have been able to recover, remain and reshape our spirits.
— Magen Alexis, Nakota Sioux, Administrative Assistant, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
My granny helped to raise me and she was very devoted to the Catholic religion. I spent a lot of time as a young girl in a church and praying to “God” believing that your devotion (or lack of) defined you as a person. The tattoo of my rosary and script from the Bible symbolizes and memorializes my granny’s loving nature and kind heart. She gave the rosary to me when I was seven years old and I believe she lived her life by the words: “Let all that you do be done in love.”
As an adult, I learned about the history of colonization and the intent of residential schools run by the churches. I am torn when I consider my loving (yet traumatic) childhood with regards to my family’s devotion. Our Indigenous culture was all but erased and our ability to speak our traditional language has been lost over time, but our resilience, our connection to the land and our ability to laugh never left.
I had to ask for guidance for the Chipewyan (Dene) word I have tattooed, but it symbolizes our strength and humour even when our own existence was at stake. nadlogh means “she is laughing.”
— Roslyn Cardinal, Métis/Dene, Administrative Assistant, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
Both of my grandparents went to residential schools. I’ve never personally heard their stories about it, but I know that it was not a positive experience. We can see the effects that residential school has had on them and our family. They were taught not to speak their language or to pass it on, thus I don’t speak Cree and neither does anyone else in my family.
Now, as an adult, I am attempting to learn Cree and trying to learn about our history and culture. Our language, culture and family history was kept quiet and hidden for so long. It is empowering to finally be able to hear their stories and have their knowledge shared with us.
— Keestin O’Dell, Cree, Student Engagement Advisor, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
I am the middle child of nine. My parents went to residential school, as did my four older siblings. In the 1960s, it was still customary for my nation in Saskatchewan to practice traditional adoption so our parents could go to neighbouring farms and cities to work and provide for our families. As a child, I was given to my maternal grandparents to raise me.
I am told that when my kokom heard about the horrendous abuse her children and grandchildren were experiencing at residential schools, she hid me under her bed to prevent my apprehension by the Indian agent. I am so grateful for my kokom’s love and caring. She grounded me in nehiyawewin, the Plains Cree language, culture and ceremonies.
Looking into the future, my parents knew the value and importance of acquiring a quality Western education to help our peoples. They encouraged me to venture into the mainstream world for my post-secondary education. Today, I continue this journey. I am enrolled in a Master of Psychotherapy and Spirituality program. I share the history, beauty and strength of our culture to bring honour and cultural pride back to our peoples.
— Roxanne Tootoosis, Cree, Indigenous Knowledge Keeper/Facilitator, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
My mother’s and father's biggest foundation was religion and spiritual teachings. As children, we were exposed to both our cultural traditions and ceremonies, as well as Sunday school. My parents trusted the priests and nuns to teach us catechism. Then the physical, mental and spiritual abuse took place under the name of God.
As a child, no one knew how to deal with me. I used to sit alone at school and get into fights. It did a lot of damage. The effects lasted through my youth and into my adult life. The damage progressed into alcoholism, which affected my own parenting.
At the age of 30, I decided to change my life and joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began my healing journey. Along my journey, I forgave the priests and nuns. I still hold my Catholic beliefs and remain involved with the church. It was forgiveness that allowed me to find sobriety and heal.
— Esther, Community Member
My great-grandmother attended a residential school. I’ve heard stories of her fighting nuns and stealing wine. When her children were old enough, they were taken as well. In the residential school system my grandfather was taught through hate and learned through fear. As a direct result of his time at the school, he developed a dependency on drugs and alcohol to escape reality and forget his past. He did not know how to properly take care of his children. Children learn through observation and experience, and unfortunately he was not able to observe or experience adequate care in the residential school he attended. One time, while blacked out in a drunken stupor, I heard him cry and ask the Creator why his mother left him there.
My mother developed physically and mentally debilitating anxiety from the stress of constantly being left alone to fend for her seven siblings for days — and sometimes weeks — on end without any food or money. She tells me that feasts saved them from starvation many times. In adulthood, she also developed depression from the baggage of her childhood.
I had my first anxiety attack at age 12 and was recognized as clinically depressed at 16. I carry the weight of the trauma my great-grandmother, grandfather and mother experienced with me every day.
— Marisa Smallboy, Cree, Summer Student, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
When I flip through my kokom’s old photographs, she asks me if I notice anything about the early ones of her childhood. They are all taken in the summer and she’s never smiling. She tells me it’s because she was only allowed to come home from Lebret residential school during the summer, and she’s never smiling because she knew that she had to leave her mom and dad again.
She doesn’t talk about it very often, but when she does it’s very matter of fact so that she doesn’t have to face the trauma in her childhood. She began a healing process a few years ago and has recently started to open up about her experiences, but that part of her life isn’t mine to tell.
My kokom is such an inspiration to me because even after getting a poor education at residential school, she was one of the only Indigenous women at her university to earn a degree. She went on to get several more degrees, including a master’s. She has worked in finance, health care, justice, government, education and has run and owned many businesses. She is a powerhouse in every sector and at 72 she still refuses to retire.
Her legacy will run in my blood and her resilience and strength will carry me for the rest of my life.
–Cheyenne Greyeyes, Cree, Student, MacEwan University