More Than a Number: The Indigenous Children Left Behind
Wajeeha Nouman, Grade 11
215 in Kamloops Indian Residential School.
751 at Marieval Indian Residential School.
St. Eugene’s Mission School, 182.
Kuper Island Industrial School, 160.
Totalling to over 1,300, this marks the beginning of the search for the missing Indigenous children who are still unaccounted for.
Last year, in the final months before school ended, these headlines began to stream into various media outlets, highlighting one devastation after another. When the first revelation came out about the Kamloops Indian Residential School, there came to light a sickening reality that children as young as 3 were among the remains. Yet, although this news was a shock to the nation, for many Indigenous communities, it was not unexpected.
Many parents would not imagine burying their children in their lifetime. More so, parents would never expect to have their child buried with no knowledge of where their gravesite may be. And yet, this is a common case for many Indigenous parents, families, and communities who are still experiencing the harmful effects of the residential school system.
The trauma that has come from this system has created a need for honouring the victims of residential schools, which is exactly what the “Every Child Matters” movement aims to achieve. Each year, Bishop Reding, along with many other schools and people across the nation participate in Orange Shirt Day on September 30th to promote this movement. The only exception is that this year was a little different. In addition to Orange Shirt Day, September 30th, 2021 marked the first-ever federal holiday of the “National Day For Truth & Reconciliation”. This day was a formal acknowledgement from the government that Canada as a whole must honour these residential school victims.
Usually, when the total number of the deceased residential school victims is brought up, it is often only brought up in the context of a statistic. This makes it easy to forget that they were children and that this system caused young lives to be cut short or created trauma that lasts for a lifetime. So instead of focusing on the numbers, the focus will be on the children themselves, including the treatment in the schools that led them to such horrible deaths. For this, it can only be best understood by the people who have experienced it first-hand.
*DISCLAIMER: The following content involves the disturbing experiences of a residential school victim which could be traumatic for some. The next highlighted part is where this section ends.
Abuse in residential schools was common, ranging from severe physical to sexual abuse. At around the age of 8, Dennis Saddleman was no exception.
Days after a traumatic incident of abuse he experienced at the school, he stood in front of a river and recalled saying, “River, river, if I jumped in, would you swallow me?” (Moran, 2021).
He walked away from the river that day but continued to struggle with his experiences at the residential school even after he had left. For more than a decade, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
One day, he decided that he “didn't want to give the residential school the satisfaction that it killed [him]”, so he channeled his emotions into poetry (Moran, 2021). An excerpt from his poem “Monster” displays his hatred towards his residential school:
I hate you residential school, I hate you
You’re a monster
With huge, watery mouths
Mouths of double doors
Your wide mouth took me
Your yellow-stained teeth chewed the Indian out of me
Your teeth crunched my language
Grinded my rituals and my traditions
Your tastebuds became bitter
When you tasted my red skin, you swallowed me with disgust
Your face wrinkled when you tasted my strong pride
I hate you residential school, I hate you
You’re a monster. (CBC, 2021)
The history of the Canadian residential school system is not deeply buried in our past. The last school closed in 1996. It is not far from home either, with the Mohawk Institute in Ontario being the first residential school to open in Canada. According to estimates, 150,000 children went to residential schools, and without counting incomplete records, around 6,000 died at their residential school.
This is a call to reflect on the tragedies of the residential school system and remember that Indigenous struggles are not confined to one day, September 30th, but are rather imprinted in Canadian history forever.
“The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience” (Gilmore, 2021).