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What Canada and the Catholic Church have done to First Nations peoples can never be buried again

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The exposure of mass graves at residential schools in Canada confirm what Indigenous Nations have been saying for decades


22 Jul 2021

Photo courtesy of Anna Huard, showing her Nanny in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1972

Content warning: This article contains mentions of child abuse.

In the 1920s, our grandmother attended a residential school in Canada for First Nations peoples. As an Anishinaabe Indigenous person, Nanny Lucille was a student at St. Margaret’s Residential School in Fort Frances, Ontario, where she lived with other First Nations children apart from their families. Our family always insisted that she had a “positive experience” there and talked about how she “excelled in her studies”. For as long as we can remember, this was the narrative repeated to us. But since May, when the remains of 215 children were found near a now-closed residential school in British Columbia, it feels as though both our white and Indigenous family members had been trying to convince us (and themselves) that Nanny Lucille’s story was separate from the horrific acts that have only recently been unearthed. Did our grandmother really enjoy residential school or had she just been anxiously eager to erase her Indigenous identity after being shamed by the Catholic Church? The purpose of the schools was to “kill the Indian in the child”, after all.

The exposure of the mass grave at Kamloops Residential School on the lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed what many Indigenous Nations have been saying for decades: that innumerable children were stolen from our communities and suffered horrific consequences due to the Indian residential school system, which was funded by both the federal Canadian government and several denominations of the Catholic Church – the dominant religion in Canada. Just a week later, the Cowessess First Nation discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site of a similar former residential school in Saskatchewan.

When we first heard the news from British Columbia, we weren’t so much shocked that children had been tossed into unmarked graves as though they were worthless. We have known this reality since our Elders have told us about the horrors of those schools. We were shocked to hear the amount of bodies that were found, and continue to be uncovered. It took us several days to process it. There were moments where we felt dizzy and sick when we thought of how these abused children craved their mother’s touch. We still feel this way.

“We used to be so angry, but learning more about the history and seeing it bleed into our family trauma makes us realise that we are not alone”

Between 1831 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, followers of the Catholic Church, and Indian Agents (government representatives that enforced the Indian Act). They were forced into underfunded and overcrowded schools where many were sexually abused, severely mistreated and punished for their Indigeneity. It was a genocidal tactic that robbed Indigenous peoples of seven generations of ancestral knowledge, communal ties and deep connections to their traditional territories. Many children never came home. In 2015, the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with uncovering what happened in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, revealed that at least one in 25 children went “missing” and many of their family members still don’t know their whereabouts.

Nanny died with a rosary above her bed. She vehemently denied her Anishinaabe identity, which had been stamped out by the residential school. She pushed her Christian ideologies on her children in fear of their safety, leaving my aunties and my father with internalised guilt over our brown skin.  They misguidedly believed in a system that wanted us dead, staying close to the Church. Of course, we don’t blame  Nanny for the pain passed onto my relatives. We used to be so angry, but learning more about the history and seeing it bleed into our family trauma makes us realise that we are not alone.

As far as ‘thoughts and prayers’ from others go, Indigenous Nations impatiently await a papal apology from the Vatican for the role the Catholic Church played in the scandal. Scheduled for December this year, the decades-long wait for an apology demonstrates a lack of urgent accountability when it comes to taking ownership of the hurt inflicted on our people. Without meaningful reparations, such as providing funding and giving back land, the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities will grow. An apology is simply not enough: tangible efforts need to be made. How are we to move towards reconciliation if one party refuses to?

We suggest that Indigenous Nations gain access to all the archival records of residential schools that are being withheld from us – by Christian organisations, federally-funded museums, Western educational institutions and the Canadian government. Having control over the information and systems that either hinder or benefit our knowledge of what happened allows us to be sovereign. First Nations people are so sick of being a fiduciary responsibility of the Crown, who keep us in this position by not allowing us to be autonomous. We want to see Indigenous advocacy groups across Turtle Island (otherwise known as North America) seek justice by laying criminal charges against those who destroyed the lives of these children and the lives to come. 

Despite ongoing attempts to disempower Indigenous Peoples in Canada – from these historic residential schools, to our overrepresentation in carceral and foster care systems, and the disproportionate violence suffered by Indigenous people of marginalised genders – we’re finding ways to continue our legacy. Since the mass graves were unearthed, protesters have toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II in Winnipeg and churches standing on First Nations territory have been incinerated. Despite criticism online from some that such actions are unhelpful for our movement, these protests mark a resistance to the ongoing systems of colonial oppression in Canada. 

Not only are we surviving, but we are thriving through the practise of Indigenous ceremony, language, ancestral knowledge and kinship systems. By actively learning Anishinaabemowin, attending the Sundance ceremony every summer and having engaging conversations about what decolonisation could look like now, we feel fulfilled. We feel heard and seen. Despite all attempts to end us, we proliferate, succeed and celebrate the generations to come. We wish Nanny was still here to see how strong and beautiful our people are.