Canada’s ‘crying shame’: The fields full of children’s bones
Indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential schools tell the stories of those who never made it out.
The following article contains disturbing content that some readers may find traumatising or triggering.
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Saskatchewan, Canada – On a windy, mid-September morning in the middle of Saskatchewan’s picturesque Qu’Appelle Valley, Barry Kennedy, 62, stares tearfully at a field full of bones.
It contains the unmarked graves of First Nations children who died at the former Marieval Indian Residential School that once stood just metres east of the burial ground.
Barry, a member of Carry the Kettle First Nation, attended the Canadian government-funded and Catholic Church-administered school from the age of five to 11.
In June, the Cowessess First Nation announced that 751 unmarked graves – believed to be of both children and adults – had been found at the site.
Barry calls it “a crying shame”.
“We were never believed … Now, I think Canadian society is heartbroken that all these atrocities happened on their behalf.”
Marieval was one of 139 Indian Residential Schools attended by an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis (mixed race) children in Canada. The first school opened in 1831 and the last one closed in 1996. The institutions – intended to erode Indigenous culture, language and family and community ties – were notorious for the neglect and abuse of the children who were forced to attend them. Thousands of Indigenous children died at the schools, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada conservatively estimating between 4,000 to 6,000 deaths.
In 2009, the Canadian government turned down requests from the TRC for $1.5 million in funding to help identify the locations of burial sites of children at the former residential schools.
So some First Nations communities began using their own resources to hire specialists operating ground-penetrating radar to find the graves. At the end of May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation was the first to announce it had uncovered the remains of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Soon, more reports emerged of children’s remains being found near former residential schools across the country, while other First Nations continue to search for their lost children.
The day they came
Barry remembers the day they came for him and his sisters. He was five years old.
It was an autumn morning and he was at home in the cabin where he lived with his parents and seven siblings when all hell suddenly broke loose.
The first thing he heard was his father shouting. Then, he saw them in the doorway – the Indian agent (a representative of the Canadian government on the reservation), a police officer, a priest and some others from the residential school.
His mother gathered the children and took them to a bedroom, telling them not to come out.
“She left and then all of this screaming took place. I don’t even remember the words, I just heard the screaming and crying from my mother,” he says.
His parents were fighting to protect their children. But it was no use.
“My parents went to residential school. There was a reason for those screams because my mother knew what we were in for. There was no choice in the matter whatsoever. They had to, or they were going to jail.”
Barry shakes his head as his face turns red with anger. He doesn’t even remember saying goodbye to his parents.
‘Predators, plain and simple’
Along with three of his sisters, he was dragged to a waiting vehicle and thrown onto the backseat. He says it felt like the longest drive of his life. He had no idea then where he was going or why.
“We were all crying and huddled up together trying to console one another, trying to hide behind one another,” he says.
When they finally pulled up near a large brick building that resembled a cathedral, Barry’s sisters were removed from the vehicle. They would be staying in the school’s girls’ residence. He was driven on to the boys’ quarters, where a priest pulled him out of the car.
He was overcome with fear, he says, and tried to run away. But he was caught by the scruff of his neck and sent to line up with other boys for processing. He was stripped and deloused, his head was shaven and he was forced into a cold shower by pale-faced women dressed in black from head to toe. “Someone was grabbing you, kicking you during this process,” he says.
Then he was given some bedding and clothes and sent to a large room lined with cots.
That night, as he slept alongside 100 or so other boys, he heard strange sounds. He understood then that monsters lurked in the dark. He soon discovered who those monsters were.
Staff known as “night-keepers” were assigned to watch over the children as they slept. “When that door would open and the light would cast upon the dorm, you could hear the whimpering begin,” he says. The night-keepers would prowl the rows of beds and molest the children.
“I’ll never forget the smell,” he says, choking up. Boys would soil their underwear out of fear, he explains. Others would do it on purpose to try to deter their molesters from abusing them that night.
For the six years that he was there, Barry was regularly molested. There are tears in his eyes and anger in his voice as he says, “They were predators, plain and simple.”
‘Introduced to death’
As he walks through the field of graves now dotted with rows of solar lamps and the teddy bears and colourful plastic flowers brought by mourners over the past few months, another traumatic memory resurfaces.
He was eight years old when he was woken early one morning and told to put on the robes he wore when working as an altar boy, helping the clergy during church services. A priest took him and some other altar boys to a spot behind the church. There, they saw a small figure wrapped in white cloth beside a freshly dug grave.
“We were forced to assist in performing the last rights to an individual.” He pauses to point at a spot in the distance. “It was over there somewhere … I don’t know whether it was a boy or a girl because they were just wrapped in cloth. That was the first time I was introduced … to death,” he says.
When the first announcement came about the unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School, it hit Kennedy hard. Then, just a few weeks later, the bodies were discovered at Marieval.
As a survivor, Barry is used to processing difficult emotions. But that doesn’t make it any easier, and sometimes, he says, he just shuts down.
“I know after today, I’ll probably just like get real tired. My body gets real sore. I just prefer to be alone. And I stay at home for a few days. My wife is good, she notices, and she helps me,” he says.
‘How do you forgive?’
There was a time when the trauma would overwhelm him and he’d turn to alcohol to disassociate from the hauntings of his past. His mother and stepfather would pray for him patiently from afar, he says. He credits them with guiding him back to his Anishinaabe way of life and credits his culture with saving him from a life of hardship.
Barry went on to become a father of nine and to serve two terms as the Chief of Carry the Kettle First Nation.
“A lot of people don’t make it out alive with their trauma,” he reflects. “Me, I walk a fine line.”
These days, that fine line is between healing the past and living in the present. Part of that involves working towards forgiveness, but it isn’t easy.
“How do you forgive?” he asks. “If someone can tell me how then please do! How can you reconcile this? It was done to us, to children!
“This truth needs to get out. There are some Canadians that say, ‘Oh, why don’t you guys quit crying?’ That’s the biggest insult of it,” he adds.
He hopes survivors are given the opportunity to continue to educate others about residential schools and their repercussions. “To give guidance to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Things just need to be made right. Who better to right the wrongs, to tell them than the people that actually survived?”
‘No Indians Allowed’
To the west across the prairie landscape, at the threshold of the Rocky Mountains in Calgary, Alberta, 79-year-old Ursuline Redwood, another survivor of Merieval, shares her story for the first time.
For her, forgiveness was an escape from a prison of pain and the captors who stole her from her parents when she was a child.
She remembers her spirit breaking as her braids were cut off on her first day at the school.
“I was very scared,” she says, softly as her hands shake.
“I was traumatised because I was just like a zombie and doing whatever they were telling me to do.”
Although she didn’t understand why she was being mistreated, it wasn’t her first experience of racism.
She recalls how, when she was five years old, she had joined her parents on a shopping trip to a town near Cowessness. She had needed the toilet, so her mother took her to a public outhouse behind a store. But then she stopped suddenly to read a wooden board with black writing on it.
“And my mother just said, ‘We can’t go in there.'”
She remembers feeling confused.
“I couldn’t forget that. I can see the writing to this day even though I didn’t know what it meant at the time. It said, ‘No Indians Allowed’.”
In the end, her mother took her to use the toilet in a Chinese restaurant that was “always good to the Native people”.
‘Fear and mistrust’
When, during the summer, she heard about the remains of children being discovered across Canada, she spent time alone to grieve. She felt heavy, she says, and had to stop herself from falling apart.
“You know, I pushed a lot of stuff out of my mind,” she reflects, before falling quiet for a moment. She takes a deep breath and cries.
Eventually, she describes how she woke one morning in the dorm at Marieval she shared with dozens of other girls, including her cousin, Joanie, who slept in the bed next to hers. Their beds were so close that if they reached out in the night they could touch each other.
“She was around nine or 10,” she says of Joanie. “The nun would come around with this really loud clapper in her hand. If you didn’t wake up with that clapper then she’d get a bell and she’d ring it really hard … I remember my cousin wouldn’t get up. I was pushing her and telling her, ‘Get up. Get up.’”
Ursuline assumed Joanie wasn’t feeling well. She went to the bathroom to wash. When she came back, Joanie was still in her bed.
“There was a nun there. And she got another nun and they were both standing there and they told me, ‘Take your clothes and go dress in the bathroom,'” she says.
She knew that if she didn’t obey their orders she would be beaten with a strap or endure some other form of punishment.
“It was always fear and mistrust and I never expected love or understanding from them. I just thought, you know, they were all cold-hearted people because they never showed emotion,” Ursuline reflects.
That day, as she attended her lessons, went to church and completed her chores, she thought that her cousin must have been very ill.
“I found out, later on, she was dead,” she says, her voice breaking.
Ursuline was never told what had happened to her, but she remembers that she had a cough in the days before she died and suspects it might have been tuberculosis. The nuns never offered her any medical care, she says.
That night, and the nights that followed, she was terrified to sleep next to her cousin’s empty bed.
“Can you imagine how I felt going to sleep that night? I remember I used to cover my head with the blankets because I was afraid and I wasn’t old enough to understand,” she says.
She never learned what happened to Joanie’s body. “She could be buried somewhere there,” she says, her shoulders dropping.
‘The hurt will always be there’
Ursuline pledged to stay away from her home reserve, Cowessness First Nation, for as long as she could. In fact, she left there 36 years ago with her children, fleeing an abusive relationship.
She enrolled in college, earned a social work diploma and started working with troubled Indigenous youth. Helping others helped her to heal, she says.
“I think I was healing along with those kids,” she says with a smile.
Her son, Kirby Redwood, 56, admires his mothers’ courage and devotion to working to stop the cycle of trauma. But he felt her uneasiness growing up, he says. She toiled through a lot of ugliness that affected his generation, as well.
Kirby followed in his mother’s footsteps, becoming a social worker himself. He is now the CEO of Miskanawah Community Services Association, an Indigenous-led social services agency in Calgary.
“It was years. Years even for me to heal from intergenerational trauma. But you know, everyone always attributes the trauma to residential schools, but it’s the whole colonial violence, too,” he explains, his long braided hair a symbol of his culture that was banned in the residential schools.
Kirby has multiple degrees and is a well-respected leader in his field. But it wasn’t always this way. Learning to navigate the white man’s education system was daunting at first, he says.
“There’d be times where I was sitting in class learning and I was having a complete panic attack, wondering what am I doing here? I don’t belong here. I’m stupid. I must be the dumbest person here in this class.”
He returned to his culture for help, which he says empowered him to excel.
“Another one of the ways that I healed was formal education because I knew that it would be the kind of change that needed to happen. We needed to be able to walk in both worlds in a strong way.”
Ursuline points out that the road to healing isn’t easy but turning back to Indigenous culture helps.
“You know the hurt will always be there and the memories, but I’m a forgiving person,” she says. “There is hope. Stay connected to your culture and elders and learn as much you can about your heritage. Mostly your language because that’s something a lot of us lost.”