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Acknowledging and honouring the lives of the Indigenous children lost


Instead of celebrating Canada Day, both Sapotaweyak Cree Nation (SCN) and Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation (WSFN) decided to focus on their communities and heal in response to the tragic findings of unmarked graves of Indigenous childrens’ bodies found at residential schools all across Canada.
SCN hosted a walk to not only remember the children who didn’t come home, but also in honour of
the survivors of residential schools. SCN Band Councillor, Fred Stevens, is too familiar with the negative
and traumatic aftermath of residential schools and its impact on Indigenous people. “Many children from
our area who attended residential school were scattered all over in different locations,” said Stevens. “I
am a second generation residential school survivor and my father, as a youth, was sent to Prince Albert 
Residential School and then Birtle Residential School. Many of our Elders attended the Pine Creek – Camperville Residential School as children. So everyone in our community has been deeply impacted
by residential schools. 
“I didn’t know that my father attended two residential schools while he was a child. Our parents didn’t talk about it when we were growing up for they felt ashamed. If and when I did ask a question, the only answer I would get was it was hard. I only found out later that my father wasn’t allowed to speak his language or practice his culture while attending the school. In fact, if they were caught, they were punished.
“The whole truth about residential school and what really went on behind closed doors came out when Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and other First Nations people started opening up about it,” added Stevens.
With the recent developments of finding Indigenous childrens’ bodies on residential school grounds in unmarked graves, it comes as no surprise to those who have personally lived through the ordeal. 
Parents were given no information as to which residential school their children would be sent to and in most cases, the children were split up and sent to different residential schools. The parents weren’t notified either if something had happened to their children if they didn’t return from residential school.
“Once while on a vacation, I took my father to visit family in Edmonton, so we stopped in Prince Albert,”
said Stevens. “I asked him if he wanted to go by where he went to school as a child. My father was hesitant and paused before answering. 
He told me they caught the train from Mafeking and were brought to the school there. We found the residential school by the hospital and some of the buildings were still standing. 
“We drove in slowly and he pointed out the administrator residences, the mess hall and we came upon the cottages where the children stayed. One was for girls and one was for boys. He made me stop part way and he was silent. He told me this was as far as he was allowed to go as a boy. His sister was in the other cottage but he was not allowed to see or speak to her, even though they arrived there together, they were separated.” 
For the Indigenous children who did come back from residential school, the scars were deep and long
lasting. They came back not knowing the medicines and how to use them and forgot how to speak their
language. Not only were they deprived of their culture, language and family, they no longer knew what
love was like due to the prolonged absence of it.
“When my parents grew up and had us, their parenting skills weren’t really there,” noted Stevens. “Parents show their love and kindness by hugging their children. We didn’t experience much of that
growing up; it was very rare. That intergenerational effect was passed on to me and I was that way
with my own children, but now I have a second chance with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The intergenerational effect and trauma associated with that takes a long time to heal.”
Stevens has shared his story with others including his family as part of the healing process. “It was hard and very emotional to do that,” added Stevens. “It’s a difficult thing, especially when people think you should just get over it. If only it was that simple. To me, the more I share my story and these experiences, the stronger and more resilient I become as a result of it. 
Every time I speak or attend an event of this magnitude, I always tell people, we can’t forget about the
children who never came back from residential school.”  He went on to help some of the survivors of residential schools when it came time to tell and share their experiences and stories of what happened. It has left an imprint on Stevens that he will never be able to forget. 
“I have helped family members with this process and it’s been unbelievably haunting to do, for it’s like
getting them to relive those horrible moments,” said Stevens. “Then many Indigenous people faced prejudice when they came out and told their stories, for it was viewed as a way to get a financial payout. What many people don’t realize is that residential school survivors didn’t tell their story for the money, they told their story as a means to an end and a way to heal from it. These survivors needed to know what happened to them wasn’t their fault and need to release the heaviness of it. “Before all of that, many Indigenous people weren’t strong enough to talk about what really happened. They felt worthless and ashamed. Residential School was traumatizing for them. When I acted as a support for those people
who shared their stories, the experience and process they went through, it was hard to fathom. I never
knew any of their names; just their initials and none of them knew my name.
They were just offered a support person if they needed it. Despite not knowing each other, I could
always spot who they were by the look in their eyes. “I would try to prepare them a bit about what they
were to expect during those hearings,” added Stevens.
“Many of them didn’t get the chance to meet the lawyer ahead of time to prepare and they were scared. They had to tell a panel of people horrible tales and details, like where they were touched, what was done, by whom and how often. Many downplayed their experiences, because it was just too much for them and in most cases, they didn’t know the person’s name who abused them, other than it was a
nun, a father or priest at these residential schools. It was flawed at times, but we had no choice other than to accept it the way it was.”
For Stevens and many of the residents of SCN, the Every Child Matters Walk was a way to acknowledge
the past and the truth, while thinking of the missing children as they become found.
“The walk was a way for us to honour the loved ones who are now being found,” stated Stevens. “We didn’t celebrate Canada Day, but we did do a form of remembrance in our own way for the children. We wore orange, even though Every Child Matters is usually held in September, we are pushing the message forward now.” 
Much like SCN, WSFN also held a special event to honour the memory of the children found at residential
school sites, the survivors and their families in lieu of Canada Day celebrations. “The effects of residential
schools has haunted and plagued our people for many years,” said WSFN Chief Elwood Zastre.
“None of our grandparents or parents talked about what went on back then, but now with all that has
come out about the treatment of our family members in residential schools, we are faced with the truth
and need to acknowledge the abuse that took place. 
That is not easy. The effects of the abuse have been passed down to the next couple of generations and
can’t magically be undone. Now as they find all these unmarked graves with childrens’ bodies in them, it’s
really hitting home as to what exactly went on in these schools. “It’s time we heal our people and honour those impacted by residential schools, so we aren’t celebrating Canada Day this year, but instead paying
tribute to all we have overcome as First Nations people and to remember those that didn’t come home.”
Much like Fred Stevens, Chief Zastre has his own personal ties to the impact of residential schools. It’s
near impossible to find any Indigenous person who hasn’t had a family member in residential school in
Canada and that hasn’t been impacted by it.
“My father was a residential school survivor who was forced to attend for eight years,” noted Chief
Zastre. “He passed away without being able to share his story. I can’t imagine the pain he felt and carried
with him all of those years. He was deprived of a chance to heal and make peace with what he went
through. Many people in our community are now thinking about that, the untold stories, the truth and
are left to deal with the aftermath of the trauma. “As a result of the torment and pain, my father gave me up to my grandparents and they raised me.
He was too haunted by the past and felt he couldn’t be a parent to me. I never received the love a child is
supposed to get from their parents. Although my grandparents loved me, it’s still not the same. So on
some level, I passed that on to my own kids, because I didn’t know any better and so the cycle began.”
Many non-Indigenous people don’t understand the trauma and negative impact that residential schools had on Indigenous people. Trauma can be passed down many generations and bring forward life damaging behaviours and habits that are hard to break. “Imagine you are six years old and some
stranger comes and rips you out of your mother’s arms,” explained Chief Zastre.
“There was nothing your parents could do and they didn’t know if you were ever going to come home again. That’s the way everyone needs to think about this, is how this has impacted everyone who 
experienced it. “Everyone is hurting right now, because they think how it could have been one of their loved ones or maybe it provides them with an answer as to how their loved one never made it home from residential school. All Indigenous people are grieving right now and many are seeing how the effects of all this trauma has led to substance abuse and various other unhealthy lifestyle behaviours. It’s affecting
everyone down the line.” 
Both events in SCN and WSFN were to bring recognition to what happened in residential schools, but
most importantly, a way for people in the community to band together and heal; an opportunity that many haven’t been able to do until now.