A Walk Through A Residential School

This past week I walked the grounds of a residential school, the footings remain but the buildings have been reclaimed by grass and beautiful gardens, it has been renamed a heritage site. And as we descended down the steps into what happened to be the basement of one of the dormitories, our children began to laugh and play. We watched as they chased a squirrel and we laughed as he mocked them from the safety of a branch out of their reach. They gathered pinecones, scaled boulders, waved sticks and admired insects. I soaked it in, their innocence, their adventurousness, their independence but at the same time, their need for their parents and their ability to act completely unhindered, young and free. It wasn’t lost on me that not that many years ago, the children who lied there, in that dormitory, lost all of those things.

It has been a week since “orange shirt day,” a day proclaiming that “all children matter” a day that recognizes the atrocities our Indigenous community members faced. A six-year old girl, Phyllis Webstad, was sent to a residential school, proudly donning the new orange tee shirt her grandmother had purchased for her, only to have it removed and taken from her on day one. As someone who has taught kindergarten for several years, I can see her, eyes wide, nervous but excited, in need of someone to care for her in the absence of her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and I want to welcome her, to tell her it will be ok, that she will be well cared for and her days filled with fun, but I can’t. There’s such an enormous responsibility teaching a students’ first year setting up class rules and expectations without dampening the bright light of curiosity, young playfulness and general enthusiasm for life while sneaking in a few lessons on literacy and numeracy. It kills me that these students weren’t seen as human beings, as children, as little lights, each one a valuable personality, unique unto themselves.

For 90 seconds at a time I can feel it. The pure panic that sets in as your child disappears from your sight at a busy park and your brain races, presenting countless scenarios of your child being preyed upon by disgusting and perverted people and you are completely powerless to prevent any of it because they simply aren’t with you. And after 90 seconds I’m exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed and then I see her, I grasp my little trouble-maker, hold her tight against my body and whisper into her hair, “I love you.” And again it’s not lost on me that 90 seconds is not a long time, and I multiply it out in my mind to an unfathomable 300 days, year after year after year, and I fall apart. How did you make it through, sweet mommas?

It’s not lost on me that had my daughters momentary disappearance been something more than just that, that the RCMP would have been on my side, but they were the ones enforcing the legal seizure of your precious children. The agency that is supposed to provide protection to members of our society at their most vulnerable moments, pried very vulnerable children from the loving arms of their families and placed them in the arms of abusers.

Sweet mommas, I’ve been in a home too empty, void of all the beautiful chaos that is children, and my heart ached. My body and my soul, heavy from the emptiness and the helplessness and my heart breaks for you. My loss was one time, but you, year after year, you suffered, your home emptied, year after year, your arms emptied, year after year, your heart was carried away crying in the arms of someone else.

My daughter cries out in the night, a cry into the blackness and I go to her, and I realize how lucky we both are for this simple gesture. The children who slept here in this dormitory were not so lucky, they feared the dark because very real monsters lurked there, sexually preying on their innocence as they quietly cried themselves to sleep, praying the monsters didn’t choose them that night. Their young cries lost in the dark night, no one to comfort them for 300 sleeps at a time.

I watch my daughters’ eyes sparkle, alive and bright, their beautiful cheeks, their dimpled goofy little smiles. I love their peculiarities, their tenacity and the freedoms they choose to exercise, their ability to be themselves. I can’t imagine anyone deeming them worthless, ignoring their unique natural beauty, and extinguishing the light that shines so brightly in children so young. I just can’t.

I attend a church that each week preaches the single message of “love,” and I shudder to think of the atrocities allowed under the guise of religion. Young children malnourished, beaten when caught communicating in their mother tongue, stripped of their belongings and their culture at the hands of the church. Pedophiles allowed free access to children, when their perversions were brought to light they were moved from city to city, but still allowed a position of power over the powerless, continuously sheltered by the church. Countless abused, disconnected, hungry and sexually confused children lay devastated in their wake.

There was no war to right these wrongs, there was no world-wide upset about the injustices, the last Canadian residential school wasn’t closed until 1996, there was no formal apology, from the government, until 2008, The Catholic Church STILL has not apologized. So absolutely, compensate the survivors of the sixties scoop. That’s right, NINETEEN sixties, when the government took children from their homes, without parental consent and adopted them out to non-Indigenous families around the world. We should have known better. Nothing can make reparations for the familial brokenness, the cultural destruction, the psychological devastation our Indigenous community members suffered but we can try. Teach about it in school. Speak of it. Acknowledge it. THIS is OUR Canada. These are OUR people. THIS is OUR history.

6 Replies to “A Walk Through A Residential School”

  1. Well said, Natasha. We can only imagine the destruction wrought on families and communities by Canada’s sending its native children to residential schools.

    There’s lots of healing that needs to take place and we seem to be on the right path.

    1. It’s so hard to even imagine. The powerlessness and sense of injustice must have been so overwhelming.

      I agree that Canada is definitely on the right path to healing.

  2. I know a 70-ish native man in Chilliwack, whose parents wisely took the family to Washington State for hops and berry picking in August each year. By the time they got back in late September, the residential school “sweep” had already come through town and the kids were enrolled in the local public schools.

  3. Hi Natasha, I have met one of those children, now in her 80’s, and she still cries out, makes her way to the doors..she says they are waiting for her…but she is locked in

    1. Oh man, I can only imagine the level of PTSD that those children have experienced/ still experience. Heartbreaking that this was ever allowed to occur.

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