Thursday, December 2

Native children did not “lose” their lives in residential schools. They stole their lives | Erica Violet Lee

WWe had all heard the stories, long before they started getting 24/7 coverage this summer on all the Canadian news stations. Long before ground penetrating radars confirmed the presence of unidentified graves, we knew that our missing family members did not simply “disappear” or try and stop fleeing residential schools, despite what the missionaries told us. and government officials. Indigenous communities are necessarily united and we live in the stories of our people despite all efforts to eradicate our knowledge, cultures, languages ​​and from our lives.

Released in 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Report estimated that 4,100 named and unnamed students died in Canadian residential schools. To keep costs low, the report saying, many were likely buried in neglected, nameless graves in school cemeteries, rather than sending the bodies of students back to their home communities. Parents were often not notified at all, or the children were said to have died of disease, an excuse commonly used to justify intentional genocides of indigenous nations, based on our alleged biological inferiority.

My reservation community is Thunderchild First Nation, Saskatchewan, in the middle of the beautiful northern prairies. The institution intended for the children of Thunderchild was called St Henri, built in 1901 by the Roman Catholic Church. The creation of these residential educational institutions was a direct result of Canadian policy aimed at removing indigenous peoples from our lands and assimilating us into Canadian society. Neither the church nor the state are innocent in the continuing genocide of our people.

On May 27, 2021, the graves of at least 215 Native children were officially discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, in the city of Kamloops, British Columbia. Less than a month later, 751 anonymous graves were located at the Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. Six days later, 182 unnamed graves were located at the St Eugene’s Mission School site in Cranbrook, BC. As the days go by, more communities are unearthing such tragedies.

The result of this long-awaited reckoning involves multiple native nations across the earth treading into their own soils, following the stories we’ve all heard from our elders and keepers of knowledge.

Many of us understand that everyday Canadian schools are themselves violent institutions of assimilation and colonization. In my predominantly indigenous urban elementary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I grew up singing O Canada and God Save the Queen at assemblies. In the dining room, Johnny Appleseed, a biblical song about the benevolence of a Christian god, was to be recited before we were allowed to eat the meals provided by the school. Still, the terms “residential school” – and the American equivalent, “boarding school” – are deeply inappropriate. These “residential schools”, “day schools” and “boarding schools” were prisons. These were forced labor camps.

I remember hearing of Cree people, including young children, who were forced to work on sugar beet farms in the brutal summer heat. This was a common practice From the 1940s to at least the 1980s: farmers lured destitute and starving Indians into seasonal work with false promises, then forced workers to work 12 to 14 hours a day with little or no pay. They slept in empty trucks, tents, or grain containers. If they ventured into nearby towns, they were chased away with bats. If they tried to leave, it is possible that they took their children.

Some of the stories we are told about residential school prisons involve native children digging graves for other children. Rarely did our ancestors receive proper burials or headstones. The soils of these lands have always known our hands, as gardeners, as workers; these lands are home to our bodies and the bodies of our ancestors. The ground below the so-called Canada has been hell and has been a refuge.

One thing is clear: Native children’s lives are never “lost”; they are deliberately and violently stolen. Similarly, indigenous peoples’ lands, from Canada to the US and beyond, are never “lost”; they have been and continue to be colonized by force. The words we use are important to indigenous life because these words define the past, the present, and the possible. Bearing in mind the friendly language Canadians have been taught to use to describe the violence of the empire is part of the process of undoing colonization.

In our communities, accounting for the death of indigenous people feels relentless. We hear, see and feel the growing number of graves discovered – ever-increasing numbers recited seemingly hundreds of times a day on almost every Canadian news network. Endless repeating phone numbers for residential schooling crisis lines to connect bereaved with mental health counselors. None of that is enough.

I refuse to play the numbers game. Our pain and our life cannot be reduced to numbers or statistics. Like Twitter user @awahihte Put it on, “Kamloops is not a unit of measure.” And whose gaze are we appealing to when we repeat these numbers over and over and over again, hoping to evoke the empathy of a settler state it can’t feel? Meanwhile, as an indigenous people, we are struck to heart by those numbers, every time. There is simply no calculation that can account for the lives of every child stolen by the violence of colonialism: all the moments of joy, curiosity, play and learning that make childhood such a wonderful time; these things are immeasurable and immaterial. The lived experience of indigenous childhood is irreducible to any European notion of property, and that is precisely why it is a threat to the colonial order.

And what can the Catholic Church and the Canadian state do to repair the irreparable? Canada’s colonial institution will not reform itself, and it certainly will not end alone. However, there is one variable that is often left out of this calculation: our continued resistance. I think not only of the young people who were robbed, but the childhoods that have been reclaimed by the indigenous revival and the all-encompassing love of our parents and communities. In fact, our people continue to be robbed and killed. In fact, our knowledge is suppressed and our lands are colonized. Despite this, what allows me to wake up in the morning and feel hope is all that we managed to save, all that they could not take. Our languages ​​and ceremonies were preserved and practiced covertly, hidden from the Indian agents who patrolled our reservations. And the parents camped out in tepees outside those prisons, hoping to see their children. They never gave up. Us neither.

The children’s institution on my reservation, Thunderchild First Nation, in the middle of the beautiful northern prairies, was set ablaze in 1948 by a fire in the middle of the night. The fire was rumored to have been started by the captive children at St Henri. The institution was never rebuilt.

Since time immemorial, many indigenous peoples around the world have used fire to rejuvenate the earth and restore order to the natural world. The lesson is that sometimes things must burn for the earth to heal and be healthy again. As monuments and statues of colonial figures are torn down, and as black and indigenous communities continue to resist and heal, another world becomes possible. In the next world we are building on these lands our ancestors knew so well, no child will see their formative years violently stolen by colonialism. They will be free. We’ll be free.

  • Erica Violet Lee is a nêhiyaw from Saskatoon and a member of the Thunderchild First Nation. She is a poet, academic, and community organizer.

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