Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
This Thursday marks the first official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, intended to honour the children and families impacted by the residential school system and remember those who were lost.
The day – which coincides with Orange Shirt Day – received Royal Assent on June 30 as Bill C-5. It is being officially observed by the federal and territorial governments as well as the municipalities of Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Hay River.
In May, 215 unmarked graves were found on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This prompted Indigenous nations across the country to begin searching former school sites in their own communities.
There have now been around 6,500 graves uncovered to date, with more expected as searches continue.
The discoveries were met with horror and grief for the children lost and families affected – and outrage over past and continued injustices against Indigenous people.
“The federal government policy was to kill the Indian inside the child, and it used religion to do that,” Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya told Cabin Radio.
“When I entered into that residential school, at five years old, my whole world shifted,” he said. “My skin colour wasn’t OK. My language wasn’t OK. My relationship with my sisters on the other side of the residential school wasn’t OK, and my name, Norman, wasn’t OK.”
At least 150,000 Indigenous children are estimated to have attended schools Canada-wide. Thousands of children died while in the system’s supposed care according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though the true number is lost since full and accurate documentation was not maintained.
September 30 “is a very powerful day … for the Canadian public to realize the truth about residential schools, the impact on our families and the communities, and the results of those policies in our communities today,” Yakeleya said.
For Albert Lafferty, a Métis resident of Fort Providence, Thursday will be a sombre day of reflection.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone – descendants like myself, communities at large across Northwest Territories, and across the country, and for Canadian society in general – to reflect on history,” Lafferty said, “and to learn about how the country was founded … and the legacy of policies that remain and affect the ways of life of Indigenous people in the country.”
Angela Canning, in Yellowknife, told Cabin Radio she has similar plans: reflect quietly on what the system and its impacts have meant for her.
Canning refers to herself as “a second-generation survivor” of the residential school system. Both of her parents were in that system, as were her oldest sister, grandmother, and several aunts and uncles.
“We need to recognize the legacy of the residential schools, because it’s all around us,” she said. “You can see it. There’s so much dysfunction and abuse, and we just need to really honour those people that survived.
“This is part of our ongoing reconciliation process. This is how things get better.”
Tyra Moses, a member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation, said: “The best thing I can do is try to honour those who came before me and work toward revitalization of the Dene culture and language.”
Moses is the founder of Dene Media, which she uses to highlight Dene people, communities, and culture through photography, film, documentaries, and research. She says her life’s work is to counter prejudiced and inaccurate representations of Dene in media and tell stories through a Dene lens instead.
Finding ways to uplift Indigenous practices and traditions is as important as learning how colonial history has impacted her people, she said.
“I think it’s really important, as a nation, that we move forward with a deep understanding of our language, our culture, and our history,” Moses continued.
“[The Dene] have lived here for 10,000 years, and we have governed this land and our own education systems prior to these education systems.
“That knowledge is still valuable. Indigenous knowledge is very valuable, and it’s very, very important that we start recognizing that.”
Knowing the past, understanding the present
The trauma of residential schooling remains close to the hearts of many in the NWT. Around half of the territory’s residents are Indigenous. There were 14 residential schools in the Northwest Territories alone.
Richard Hardy is a member of the Métis Nation of the Northwest Territories who attended both Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall in Inuvik for a total of six years. Hardy was one of several students who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Martin Houston, a supervisor at Grollier Hall.
He is writing a book about his experiences in the system, his life in the NWT, his Métis identity, and his decades-long law career.
Hardy said Canada has a long way to go to achieve reconciliation. For example, he argued, the Métis remain often excluded in seeking justice.
“When I take a look at the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I see very little there for the Métis,” Hardy said. “We seem to have been buried in this concept of the Indigenous people of Canada.
“There’s nothing specific for the Métis people … and that is sad because, as Métis, we struggle to assert ourselves and continue to do so.”
The Calls to Action span a wide range of measures, from urging the federal government to acknowledge Indigenous language rights to adopting and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
According to the CBC’s Beyond the 94 project, 13 of the calls have been completed, 29 are in progress with projects under way, 32 are in progress with projects proposed, and 20 have not yet started.
Number 58 calls on the Pope to issue an apology to former students, families, and communities for the Catholic church’s role in the system. An international delegation of First Nation, Inuit, and Métis representatives is set to meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican this December.
Yakeleya said the Canadian government and the Catholic and Anglican churches “must be held accountable” for their actions.
“What they did was an act of genocide,” he said. “They tried to assimilate Indigenous people with corporal punishment.
“They can’t and they will not get away with it.”
The Dene Nation has submitted a proposal to the federal government for a two-year project that would assist communities in searching former residential school grounds. Earlier this year, $320 million in federal funding was pledged to support communities dealing with the ongoing impacts of residential schools.
Yakeleya said the Dene Nation is still waiting for a response from the federal minister of Indigenous affairs, though he has heard the proposal “is in the mix.”
“We’re hoping that we get word from the federal government … to begin the daunting task of identifying every residential school site,” Yakeleya said. “It has to be done, and it has to be done in a culturally sensitive way so that we bring closure to our people.”
Some NWT communities have already taken on the work themselves. In July, the Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation announced plans to search the grounds of the former Sacred Heart residential school site in Fort Providence.
On Thursday, the Dene Nation will keep a sacred fire lit in Somba K’e Park from 8am to 7pm. There will be no official ceremony or speakers, but anyone wanting to stop by and offer a prayer, thought, or offering is welcome.
Only tobacco will be allowed in the fire.