Every child matters
Residential schools in Canada: Updated September 30, 2021
Update: This issue was written in May 2021. First Nations continue to discover unmarked graves on the grounds of former Indian residential schools in Canada. As I write this, more than 6,500 suspected graves have been found.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada showed evidence of 3,200 deaths in its report on the history and legacy of residential schools. Chairman Murray Sinclair estimates the mortality rate is much higher, placing it somewhere between 6,000 and 25,000.
This list of resources is being updated continuously to include new findings and recommendations from readers. Please check back. (Look for the word NEW.)
Last update was September 30, 2021 at 5:00 pm.
On the Victoria Day weekend, as Canada celebrated its colonial origins, the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops.
It is a horrifying reminder of the history and ever-present legacy of Canada’s residential schools, institutions designed to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The discovery also exposes and intensifies the deep suffering and grief of residential school survivors, their families and communities.
The residential school in question had documented the deaths of 51 children—too many, yes, but far fewer than the number of children found last weekend. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and the Royal British Columbia Museum are searching for any documents that may identify the children who were taken from their families and culture and buried in a mass grave.
Like many settlers, I have been grappling with this stark reminder of the genocide carried out here, in Canada, during my lifetime. I decided to put together an unplanned issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. to share some of the important work being done to address and redress the harms done by residential schools and other colonial institutions.
If you’d like to recommend any additional teachings, resources, or acts that can be taken, please send them to me or add them to the comments under this issue on Substack.
I will continue to add links as I learn about them.
Sift through the oral and written history of Canada’s residential school system.
NEW September 30, 2021 marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Communities gathered in ceremony to remember the children who were lost and those who survived with moments of silence, stories, and song.
If you were unable to attend one of the ceremonies, several were filmed and can be streamed online. You can also watch this CBC special (in English, French and Indigenous languages with subtitles) in which:
JUNO Award-winning artist Elisapie hosts a special that honours the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples affected by the tragedies of the residential school system in Canada, with musical tributes and ceremonies in Indigenous communities across the land.
Other credible resources:
Speaking our truth: A journey of reconciliation—a rich online resource and guide for all ages to accompany the non-fiction book by Monique Gray Smith
“The residential school system” by Erin Hanson (2009), with updates and revisions by Daniel P. Gamez and Alexa Manuel (September 2020)
NEW “Where are the children buried?”, Dr. Scott Hamilton, Department of Anthropology, Lakehead University (April 11, 2015)
See the report’s figures and illustrations.
Stay current by listening to Indigenous people tell their own stories and report on current events from an Indigenous respective:
NEW This Place: “a 10-part journey through one-hundred and fifty years of Indigenous resistance and resilience.” Based on the graphic anthology of the same name.
Telling our Twisted Histories, a new Indigenous-led podcast that explores the history and connotations behind 11 words, launched May 30, 2021. Click the link for the first episode.
Unreserved, CBC Radio
Reclaimed, CBC Radio
Through our Eyes: Indigenous Short Docs is just one example of Indigenous reportage available on CBC Gems
Shift your awareness and deepen your understanding and empathy by immersing yourself in the work of artists.
Spotlight on Project of Heart
“Project of Heart is an inquiry based, hands-on, collaborative, inter-generational, artistic journey of seeking truth about the history of Aboriginal people in Canada. Its purpose is to:
Examine the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and to seek the truth about that history, leading to the acknowledgement of the extent of loss to former students, their families and communities
Commemorate the lives of the thousands of Indigenous children who died as a result of the residential school experience.
Call Canadians to action, through social justice endeavors, to change our present and future history collectively”
Please visit the Project of Heart website for a rich and varied list of resources, one far greater than I could pull together in this newsletter.
Margaret Popuak-Fenton has written four beautiful and profound books for children and young adults:
Fatty Legs (Annick Press, 2010)
A Stranger at Home (Annick Press, 2011)
When I Was Eight (Annick Press, 2013)
Not My Girl (Annick Press, 2014)
Strong Nations has a selection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction books about residential schools that were written by Indigenous authors. Please support this Indigenous-owned and -operated online bookstore and publishing house.
If you are not sure what to read first, here are a few of the many outstanding options:
Five Little Indians by Michelle Good (Harper Collins, 2020) won the Governor General’s 2020 award for fiction, Scotia Bank Giller Prize, Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize and several other awards
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story is a YA graphic novel written by David Andrew Robertson and illustrated by Scott B. Henderson
Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School by Chris Benjamin (Nimbus Publishing, 2014)
In February 2021, Indigenous poet and residential school survivor Louise Bernice Halfe was named Canada's next parliamentary poet laureate. “In her 2016 collection Burning in This Midnight Dream, she revisited her six years in a residential school and included observations on the Truth and Reconciliation process.
Halfe has said she wrote the collection because she ‘wanted the truth to be told.”
‘There is no reconciliation without truth. People need to know the personal, family, and community impact of residential schools. It went far beyond the government program. I wanted to tear away the masks of the ‘good intentions’ of the churches and government,’ Halfe said in a 2017 interview with All Lit Up.”
For a steady stream of book recommendations, subscribe to Raven Reads. I love receiving my quarterly “mystery box” from this Indigenous-owned, B.C.-based business, which offers two different options: one for youth and one for adults.
Every three months I receive a book by an Indigenous author—one I may not have heard about or read otherwise, one that never fails to engage my head and my heart.
Recent deliveries included Return of the Trickster by Eden Robinson (Knopf Canada, 2021), Black Water by David A. Robertson (HarperCollins Canada, 2020), and Genocidal Love: A Life After Residential School (University of Regina Press, 2020) by Bevann Fox.
Music and theatre
Watch this video and let the words of “We Won’t Forget You” sink into your consciousness. The song was written, recorded and filmed with students from Sk'elep School of Excellence in Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Children of God by Vancouver Oji-Cree artist Corey Payette
“Residential School Song” by Cheryl Bear
“Survivor’s Voice” by Edward Gamblin
“Residential School Survivors” performed at Membertou 400 Pow Wow in Halifax, NS on June 27, 2010. The dancers were the survivors of the Residential School in Shubenacadie.
Where the Spirit Lives (Amazing Spirit Productions, 1989.)
Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Montreal Prospector Films, 2013.)
We were Children (National Film Board of Canada, 2012.)
Visit Indigenous Cinema to browse the collection of Indigenous-made films at the National Film Board of Canada
“Witness Blanket” by Cary Newman is a moving national monument. The artist uses 800 artifacts (bricks, hockey skates, broken dishes and more) from 70 sites across Canada to convey the deep and lasting pain inflicted by Canada’s residential schools.
In addition to “Witness Blanket”, I have had the fortune to experience “The Lesson”, an interactive art installation by Joan Cardinal-Schubert. It is difficult to come away from either of these exhibits without having experienced a profound shift in one’s understanding and relationship to the history and legacy of residential schools, and colonization, in Canada.
Spotlight on Chanie Wenjack and The Secret Path
Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from Ogoki Post in Northern Ontario, died of exposure while attempting to run away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Ontario, where he’d been taken two years earlier.
His story has inspired educational institutes, post-secondary indigenous education, and artists from Indigenous and settler communities, including, the Tragically Hip frontman, Gord Downie, who produced an album (2013) and, with artist Jeff Lemire, a graphic novel (2014) commemorating Wenjack called The Secret Path. These projects ultimately led to the creation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.
Please note: In Sift. Shift. Lift. I prioritize stories told by the people most impacted in their own voices. I am making an exception here due to the collaboration and involvement of the Wenjack family in the telling of their ancestor’s story and in the establishment of the Downie Wenjack Fund, and with the knowledge that Downey had the support of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson.
Heritage Minutes: Chanie Wenjack
“The lonely death of Chanie Wenjack” by Ian Adams (MacLean’s Magazine, February 1, 1967)
Gord Downie's The Secret Path and a post-show CBC Arts live panel on the road to reconciliation. Movie length 60 minutes. Panel discussion begins at 59:45.
The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund is part of musician Gord Downie’s legacy and embodies his commitment, and that of his family, to improving lives of First Peoples in Canada. In collaboration with the Wenjack Family, the goal of the Fund is to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story, and to aid our collective reconciliation journey through a combination of awareness, education, and action.
Lift up those individuals and organizations working hard to address and redress the legacy of the residential school system.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of the residential school system, these organizations can provide emotional and crisis referrals and/or support.
KUU-US Crisis Line Society 1-800-KUU-US17 (1- 800-588-8717)
National Indian Residential School Crisis Line1-866-925-4419
First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) Indian Residential Schools Program and Information Line: 1-877-477-0775
Things you can do:
Support organizations leading the call for action, including the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, the Orange Shirt Society, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Downie Wenjack Fund or the organization of your choice.
Take the 94 calls to action to heart and put them into action
Check out Settlers Take Action at OnCanadaProject.ca
Show your belief that #everychildmatters on Orange Shirt Day
Follow #indigenousreads on social media, read, teach, and share books by Indigenous authors
Do you have other recommendations? Please share them with me via email, DM, or the comments section under this issue on Substack.
Wishing you peace, with deep respect and friendship, from the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations,