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Remembering our children

STEVE BONSPIEL THE EASTERN DOOR

This Grade 5/6 class from Kateri School was “horrified to hear that they took kids as young as three,” said teacher Gina Montour-Delaronde.

Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive residential school references.

This article was written in collaboration with Eastern Door reporter Laurence Brisson Dubreuil and owner Steve Bonspiel. 

Thousands of shoes were laid in front of churches across the country, becoming commemorative places to honour the lives of Onkwehón:we children lost in residential schools.

The heartbreaking discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in southern British Columbia, has elicited profound reactions across the country.

Some of the remains are of children as young as three-years-old, said chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation last Friday during a virtual press conference.

As Indigenous communities were left grappling with pain, anger, and immense grief, they came together to commemorate the lives of innocent souls, including a parade here in Kahnawake.

Kanesatake

As the front steps of the Church of the Annunciation in Oka began to fill with children’s shoes, so did the outdoor space in front of the parish, where approximately 30 community members gathered to share a moment of grief.

A circle slowly formed as several Kanehsata’kehró:non women began to sing the honour song.

When the song came to an end, member of the Longhouse Tawit Gabriel delivered a speech; first in Kanien’kéha, then in English.

“It’s not easy to stand in two worlds: the Onkwehón:we world and the non-Native world,” said Gabriel. “You have to be able to balance that, you have to be able to live in it and you have to be able to survive it.”

Gabriel spoke not only about the pain that resonated with everyone following the tragic uncovering, but also of the resilience passed on by ancestors, which inhibits each Indigenous person.

“We have to be strong – stronger than ever, as some of our own survivors have done in the past,” said Gabriel, adding that every step forward is a step toward healing.

The group assembled was motivated to do so after Mohawk Council of Kanesatake chief Valerie Bonspille made a post online to encourage Kanehsata’kehró:non to meet in remembrance of the children.

“I didn’t think of doing this as a political thing,” she explained. “I did it as a person, not as a chief – I also did it as a fellow community member and as a parent.”

With elections just around the corner, the chief expressed that she intends to take action to bring home the remains of Kanehsatake children who died while in the care of these institutions.

“The pain is ingrained because we too have community members that did not come home from residential schools,” said Bonspille.

Bonspille pointed out that the idea for the event was inspired by what its sister community of Kahnawake had organized that same day.

Kahnawake

In Kahnawake, community member Jessica Oesterreich sent a call out on Facebook requesting that 215 pairs of shoes be left in front of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church to honour the young lives lost.

The children’s remains were located using ground-penetrating radar technology at the site, which was once the largest residential school in Canada with about 500 children attending at its peak.

“I felt that placing the shoes in front of the church was a powerful way to demonstrate that the community understands who is responsible for the deaths of those children,” said Oesterreich.

She expressed that the memorial was also important to provide the community of Kahnawake with a place to grieve this unimaginable loss.

“Many tears were shed upon seeing those shoes – shedding those tears was necessary,” she said.

On Sunday afternoon, over 100 people, of all ages, gathered at the Knights of Columbus for a commemorative march to pay respect to the children that never made it home.

The march organizer, Tammy Whitebean, said that the walk was planned quickly, and the event was shared on social media to spread the word.

“It was important for our community to stand together at this time, to show our respect and to honour their lives. It was something that needed to be done,” said Whitebean.

There was singing and dancing while the crowd – many wearing orange shirts – slowly made their way toward the sacred fire on the green space off of Highway 132.

While tobacco was shared throughout the group, elder Joe McGregor performed a smudging ceremony.

“This is so hard, but I am here to do what I can,” said McGregor before the ceremony began.

One by one, Kahnawa’kehró:non walked up to the fire and burned tobacco to honour the children.

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Ross Montour was part of those who attended the march. He said this horror was just the “tip of the iceberg.”

“They were willing to allow them to die – there was no reason to change their agenda to solve their Indian problem,” said Montour. “On some level, the government is still trying to solve their Indian problem.”

Moreover, the chief said that apologies are just not enough anymore, and that Canada must reckon with its past.

“That they never practiced genocide is absolute nonsense when it’s in their records,” he said.

The evening following the event, Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs minister Ian Lafrenière visited the memorial in Kahnawake along with MCK chiefs Gina Deer and Montour.

“He offered to help with whatever it is we would like to do,” said Deer.

Later on Tuesday, Lafrenière announced that the government would move quickly if requests came from Indigenous communities, but that they would not proceed without their approval.

Like elsewhere in the country, the Catholic Church operated the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1890 to 1969. The federal government subsequently took over and ran it as a day school before finally closing it down in 1978.

According to Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation chief Casimir, the search first began in the early 2000s. She said that the explanation provided by the government, which was that the children had run away, did not coincide with testimonies from survivors.

Furthermore, she stated that the school grounds have not been fully searched and she believes more children will be found. A full report is expected to be released in June.

Kanien’kehá:ka Survivors

When she was just six-yearsold, Selina Tewentawenron Nelson-Etienne and her 10-year-old sister Cecilia were kidnapped by the Indian agent in Kanesatake, and taken by train to Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

“I don’t like to name the Rahetien (a word coopted from le agent in French) because he has family,” said Selina. “I don’t want to upset them or bring hurt to his family.”

“She doesn’t want to name the Indian agent at the time, who did all the paperwork for her and her sister and dumped her on a train at Windsor Station,” said Brenda. “For me, it would be a different story.”

Although it has been over seven decades since she left the residential school, the Kanehsata’kehró:non elder still carries harrowing memories from the decade she spent there, unable to return home or see her parents, who could not afford a train ticket.

She remembers being on the train, hungry, without money, unable to speak English, and, of course, scared.

It wasn’t until Blind River, Ontario, many hours away from where she started in Montreal, that a non-Native couple boarded the train and fed her and her sister for the last part of the journey. They had been left on their own headed to an unknown destination surrounded by a foreign language.

Selina’s daughter Brenda expressed that the crossing alone left unimaginable marks on her mother, who will be turning 89 in July.

“Every time she hears that train across the river (where she lives), which is frequent, it brings back memories of being thrown on the train and not coming back for 10 years,” said Brenda.

When she heard the news of the unmarked grave, Selina wept.

“I felt bad about it and I felt pity,” said the elder. “There were a lot of thoughts that came to my mind, which I kept mostly to myself,” thoughts she didn’t want to share publicly.

“When I’m alone, it makes me cry,” she said, adding that although she counts herself lucky to have survived, she was still afraid as just a young kid experiencing this horror.

 LAURENCE BRISSON DUBREUIL THE EASTERN DOOR

Losing and Re-learning

Because Selina didn’t speak any English at the time, she recounted getting into trouble when she spoke Kanien’kéha.

Inside the residential school, older siblings oftentimes looked after the younger ones – however, this was impossible for the Kanien’kehá:ka sisters who were separated immediately upon arrival. She did, however, feel safe with the older students who protected her – sometimes from other students, other times, as best as they could, from the clergy.

Selina recalled a feeling of isolation constantly looming over her. “We couldn’t go anywhere – we did what we were told to do,” she said.

While she had no choice but to live with the pain and fear that inhibited her, Selina fondly remembers her friend, Kanehsata’kehró:non Morris Bonspille. He arrived at Shingwauk a few weeks after Selina and her sister Cecilia.

“He was always worried about me,” she said. “He was on the boys’ side and I was on the girls’ side, but he took me in as a sister. He was a real good friend.”

He passed away in 2007 at the age of 78, only later on in life admitting to his family that he was a residential school survivor.

At Shingwauk, Selina was forced to learn English as her language fell by the wayside, lying dormant within her, but never spoken.

“When she came home, she could not speak to anybody,” said her daughter. “She did not know any Kanien’kéha, she couldn’t even talk to her mom.”

Although it took time for the elder to re-learn the language, she did so with the same strength and determination that got her through the system, which kept her prisoner for a decade.

MARISELA AMADOR THE EASTERN DOOR

She later became an elementary school teacher of the language she fought so hard for.

She specifically recalled two girls who ran away, but says that they weren’t the only ones. To this day, Selina said she doesn’t know what happened to them.

The ones who tried to escape the confinement, monotony and abuse of residential school by attending a gathering secretly or running away took a big risk.

“They used to go to parties too, when they were teenagers,” she said of other students, to the adjacent Ojibway community of Garden River, best known by hockey fans as former NHL player and head coach Ted Nolan’s hometown.

“When they would run away, the RCMP would pick them up, bring them back, and shave their hair bald, as a punishment. They would get beaten with the strap as well,” said Selina.

Lily Nicholas was one of the Kanehsata’kehró:non who never made it back home.

“She was buried over there,” said Selina. “She died of pneumonia.”

“Well, that’s what they told you, anyway,” her daughter added.

Mary Oke also died at Shingwauk Residential School, although it wasn’t clear what happened to her. Her body was returned and buried in Kanesatake.

In spite of the harshness of being away from her family and all of the tough living at Shingwauk, Selina and Brenda went back in 1991 for a reunion.

COURTESY BRENDA ETIENNE

Selina Etienne, with her daughter Brenda, is an inspiration to her family.

“I took mom up there because that was in her heart; she wanted to visit it one more time,” said the daughter. “I was so proud of my mom – the respect that she had with her peers. Many of them told me she helped them in their transition and taught them how to survive in that system.”

While the memories are tormenting, Selina always chose not to disguise her pain or conceal what was inflicted on her by those who operated the school. Instead, the survivor taught her children, her children and great-grandchildren about what she and her relatives experienced at the hands of a system designed to assimilate Indigenous children.

“Today (Monday) my children woke up eager to wear their orange shirts to school because they know it’s to remember my great-grandfather. They relate the orange shirt to him,” said Karonhiawaks Etienne. “I explained to them that kids didn’t get to come home and that’s why we were remembering them today.”

Her great-grandfather Henry Etienne was sent to Shingwauk Indian Residential School in the early 1900s at five years old and spent a decade there, like his future daughter-in-law Selina.

COURTESY KARONHIAWAKS ETIENNE

Henry Etienne, top row, last boy on the right, had a fighting spirit.

The Kanehsata’kehró:non expressed how painful the mass grave uncovering has been for her as a mother and Onkwehón:we.

“My heart hurts for all the children that never came back, for all the kids that did come home and had to live with the abuse from these schools, and also for our generation that still lives with the trauma and shame that was beat into our grandparents and great-grandparents for being who they were, who we are,” said Karonhiawaks.

Henry also lost his language at residential, and couldn’t communicate with his mother when he came home, so he had to re-learn Kanien’kéha, and as an adult he taught all his children to speak as well.

Karonhiawaks enrolled in Kanesatake’s language program to learn for her and her family.

“As I continue to learn our language I’ve realized that it’s something that is deeply rooted in me,” she said.

“I feel ashamed at times that I can’t speak, but it’s that shame that’s been carried through generations, it’s that shame that holds us back! If my great-grandfather could come home from that school and deal with all that trauma and still re-learn Kanien’kéha, well what do I have to complain about?”

As another survivor of the colonial so-called education system, Kahnawa’kehró:non Lewis Williams shared the story of how at just five-years-old, he was taken from his home and forced to attend Garnier Residential School for Indian Boys in Spanish, Ontario.

COURTESY LEWIS WILLIAMS

The Kamloops coverage over the weekend was upsetting for Williams, who said that it triggered a dream about an incident he had long forgotten.

Williams recalled an event he believed took place during the first snowfall in November 1951, when he was sliding on a piece of cardboard on an escarpment which led straight down to where a sawmill stood, with a door opened facing the Spanish River.

“I looked inside the sawmill and saw all these wooden boxes, like wooden coffins. But these were small ones, like children’s size,” he said.

He went inside and tried to take one of the boxes to use as a sort of sled, but was unable to because he was so small.

“I went back up with the cardboard, and the priest called me over. I was never told I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was beaten with a whip on my buttocks, my legs, and my back.”

The survivor remembers vividly that as he was being beaten, he excreted, but that the priest continued to strike him. He said the assault only came to an end when one of the older boys intervened and took the whip from the priest.

“I was taken to the infirmary where a brother poured iodine on my wounds, and it hurt me all the more. I was crying, and he said ‘God punished you for going somewhere you are not supposed to go,” Williams recounted.

He explained that after the dream came to him, he suddenly woke up at around 4 a.m. and just reflected on his harrowing experience at residential school.

The discovery of the young children in Kamloops opened up wounds Williams thought had long closed up.

“Fortunately, I was never sexually abused because I had my cousins Jarvis, Bruce and Cornelius looking after me,” he said.

Government’s response

Much has been said about the federal government’s inaction on the residential school issue. In particular, thousands of eyes have been looking at the Indigenous Services department and its minister Marc Miller to find out what Ottawa will do to address this crisis.

“I shudder at the thought of what a threeyear-old is doing buried there,” said Miller, referring to the children’s remains discovered in B.C. “I think everyone has a painful experience they can relate to.”

Partially because of COVID-19 restrictions, neither Miller nor the prime minister have been out to Kamloops, preferring instead to “take direction from the community.”

“My immediate and present role is to reach out to those communities and those people who are hurting – to provide as much support as is needed,” he said.

“They have asked for space, as they are in a time of mourning,” he explained. “They have to get surrounding communities to come together and establish protocols on how to honour and respect those communities.”

While Miller is conscious that his distance might be perceived as inaction, he said “it’s respectful engagement that we need to reflect on perhaps investigating a crime scene and investigating a sacred area at the same time.” Miller pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in particular directive 76, as a way to take direction at this difficult juncture.

“It states clearly to allow the communities that are most affected to lead the way in this process,” expressed the minister. “We certainly have the resources to do things, but we have to let Indigenous voices speak and be the principle carriers of this important truth-seeking exercise.”

Orange Shirt Day

When Phyllis Jack-Webstad founded Orange Shirt Day in 2013, she did so because of the time a nun took her shirt of the same colour away from her at residential school.

As a young child, the Tsilhqot’in Nation member was brought to the St. Joseph Indian Residential School in the northern part of her nation’s territory in BC.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is in the southern part, and the schools are about three-and-a-half hours apart.

When the news broke, Jack-Webstad rushed to the scene of the graves.

For four days, she joined people who had gathered to drum and sing, heal and cry. The survivor estimates that she saw some 500 supporters amass.

Jack-Webstad said that as hundreds of cars lined up, people eventually began being turned away.

Those who were able to gather did so around a sacred fire where they each shared stories.

“They had security around where the children were, so you could only go so far,” said Jack-Webstad, adding that she estimated being able to get within about 50 yards of the burial site.

“They had to say ‘this is it, four days and people need to go home,’” she added.

It was announced that a ceremony with the four Nations affected would be held “before the snow flies.”

After the time she spent at St. Joseph, Jack-Webstad went on to work in accounting at the Kamloops Indian Residential School for five years for a company called All Nations Trust – a Native-owned trust company on the grounds.

When she returned to the children’s graves on the weekend, she texted an old friend to see how she was doing.

“I just sent her a text saying ‘sister, I’m thinking of you,” she said.

When she didn’t hear back from her, Jack-Webstad broke down.

“I can’t imagine what she’s going through,” she told The Eastern Door on Tuesday. “We’ll connect when the timing is right.

“There are 50 children documented on the NCTR (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation) site, that leaves 165 undocumented. The final number hasn’t even been revealed yet,” she said.

The sad news got her to think of her five grandchildren, ranging from a baby of one-year-old to a 16-year-old.

“I’m just looking at them and imagining what could have been,” she said. “Those kids were buried there for how many years without their families knowing what happened to them or where they are? Canada has gotten a wake-up call. Where is the prime minister? Why isn’t he here?”

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