Island communities share anger, grief at unmarked children’s graves at residential school site in BC

Residential school survivor Joe Hare of M’Chigeeng stands by the memorial created by his family to honour the 215 children discovered in unmarked graves in Kamloops, BC. photo by Susan Hare

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story may contain imagery and memories that could prove triggering for some readers. The Expositor wishes to alert the reader to that possibility and urges care. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is available for counselling support by calling 1-800-721-0066, or call the national crisis line at 1-866-925-4419, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

MANITOULIN—The recent discovery of 215 unmarked children’s graves near the site of a Kamloops residential school has once again cast a dark shadow across the lens through which we view ourselves as a nation—holding up a mirror that shatters the mainstream vision of Canada as a just and caring society—again.

Those 215 nameless children’s graves are widely viewed as just the very tip of a memory that the nation has tried to put behind it with numerous apologies, innumerable fine words issued and the allotment of a pittance of time and treasure that speak volumes to the continued devaluation that continue to be attached to Indigenous issues. The residential school system is something most Canadians would dearly wish to forget—but for those whose nations were nearly annihilated and whose families still suffer from its debilitating impact, the route to reconciliation does not lie through amnesia.

The Expositor reached out to a number of individuals who survived the residential system for their thoughts in light of recent events.

Joe Hare has spent a lifetime on the front lines of Anishinaabe leadership, serving for many years as the chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation and serving several terms in the leadership of regional and national Indigenous organizations.

Mr. Hare took part in establishing a recent memorial display honouring the memory of the 215 children and those whose resting places have yet to be discovered.

“My family and I took some kids’ shoes and stuff to the band office,” he said. “I said a prayer in remembrance of the children. We are hoping people will show their support and care over what happened so very long ago.”

Mr. Hare went to the residential school in Spanish, St. Joseph’s Residential School, for four years from 1953 to 1954. His brother also attended, as did his mother Ida Hare and his sister Christine Panamick. He said his experiences left him with a lifelong ambivalence toward the church. “I have always been unhappy with the church,” he said. “The church hurt a lot of people in this area. We still feel the effects of their negative influence. They wanted to destroy us as a people.”

As for apologies, Mr. Hare said while they do mean something, Indigenous people need something more tangible in order to repair the damage done. “Help bring back our culture and teachings,” he said.  

He notes that most of the people he knew who attended residential school have since began their spirit journey, but the legacy of the residential school system lives on in their children and grandchildren.

Hilda Corbiere, also of M’Chigeeng and a former Spanish residential school student, recalled her days at the residential school for girls. She said she finds herself appalled at the recent revelations from Kamloops, but noted that her experiences were not the same as those experienced at other schools.

“I remember seeing one post online where the superintendent (of the Spanish school) said something like ‘I am happy to let you know your children will be coming home for Christmas’,” she recalled. “The time of that letter was so close to when I went there.”

Ms. Corbiere attended the Spanish school during her high school years, from 1954 to 1958, and she said her experiences there were “nothing like they got.”

Her mother, Clara Cada, also attended residential school and recalled a time when many children died at the school. “She called it the ‘big sickness,’ she used an Ojibwe word that sounds better.” Ms. Corbiere surmised that the ‘big sickness’ was likely the Spanish flu pandemic that struck the world around that time. “I wonder if some of the ones buried were those that died from that time,” she said. 

Still, she said she finds the stories of other residential school survivors appalling and can’t quite wrap her mind around it. “It is so unbelievable that the priests and nuns would do such things to children,” she said. “They were supposed to look after the children.”

Not all of her memories are pleasant, however. “We had a principal, Ms. Barrington, she was so strict,” recalled Ms. Corbiere. “She never smiled, she was like some kind of Russian soldier.” Unlike many nuns at the time, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary did not don the black and white habit commonly associated with the religious orders.

Grace Fox, also of M’Chigeeng, did not find her experiences at residential school harrowing. Ms. Fox, a lifelong educator, spent 14 years at the school. She said she has a difficult time hearing the children of residential school survivors speak out about the experience and feels that Indigenous leadership should be held to account as well. She notes that despite spending 14 years in residential school, she did not lose her language or culture.

But the impact of the residential school system did have a major impact on many of those who attended the residential school at Spanish. Dawn Madahbee Leach recalled a visit to the site with her late mother Olive.

“My mother rarely talked about residential school even though she spent 12 years there,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach, “her whole childhood pretty much.”

She recalled her mother’s humility, but sometimes wonders if part of that might have been borne of a low self-esteem inculcated through the residential school culture. “I think it was ingrained in her from her schooling,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach. “She didn’t teach her children the language so we wouldn’t be called ‘stupid Indians.’ She also believed that if we learned the language we wouldn’t be able to learn anything else. Of course we know now that when you have people that know more than one language, it makes it easier to learn more.”

Ms. Madahbee Leach said she believes the ongoing and steady reinforcement that all things Anishinaabe were somehow less than equal, which infused the residential school culture and curriculum, impacted her mother all her life.

Growing up, the children in her family were discouraged from raising their voices or “stomping around.” But when it came to the bad things experienced by her mother and her friends, Ms. Madahbee Leach noted they were rarely spoken of. “They had supressed all the bad things,” she said. “That came out in other ways.”

“There were no expressions of love, hugs or anything like that, holding hands wasn’t something they would do,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach.

Her mother did eventually come around, however, and went on to teach her grandchildren the language and demonstrated her resilience. She was a teacher and encouraged her children to accomplish great things in their lives and was loved by all of her grandchildren.

“She became a certified teacher of the language and came full circle,” she said. “I am very proud of her.” 

“People need to open their eyes,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach of the residential school legacy. “Maybe this will be a pivotal point and recognition that when they see an Indigenous person in the streets they didn’t choose to be there and there were circumstances they had to struggle through their lives.”

Still, Ms. Madahbee Leach sees plenty of reasons to hope for a better future, especially given the huge number of Indigenous PhD candidates and graduates today. “I am very proud of our families and young people,” she said.

Over the years, as revelations about the residential school system surfaced through hearings and the Truth and Reconciliation process, The Expositor had occasion to interview many residential school survivors. Some of their stories were harrowing, some relatively mundane, but all showed an impact.

What often gets overlooked are the peripheral streams such as apprenticeships. The most horrifying story related to this newspaper was that of the late Angus Pontiac of Wiikwemkoong, a self-described bitter man who became a respected elder and key participant in many Island powwow gatherings.

Mr. Pontiac described how he spent much of his life consumed with hate and anger. As a child apprenticed to a shoemaker, Mr. Pontiac described the horrors of being raped against the workbench repeatedly by the journeyman to whom he was basically indentured, with nowhere and no one to turn to. It is testimony to the resilience of the Anishinaabe, and Mr. Pontiac in particular, that he was able to transcend those experiences and pass on his knowledge of the language and traditions to those who follow on.

Across Manitoulin, bells will ring out from United Churches from Meldrum Bay, Silver Water and Elizabeth Bay through to Little Current, followed by 215 seconds of silence, to show respect and sorrow concerning the 215 children.

On Wednesday, June 9 at 5:30 pm, a vigil will be held on the Little Current United Church lawn with COVID-19 two-metre spacing and masks. The vigil will be simultaneously available online live at Facebook.com/LittleCurrentSheguiandahUC. Education, action and healing resources are available at manitoulinseekinghealing.ca.