‘Not forgotten children’: Honouring the victims and survivors of residential schools

In the wake of the discovery of 215 children’s remains in Kamloops, community members in Timmins and the James Bay area speak of trauma, healing, and the need for action
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jun 02, 2021
Lorraine Naveau is a member of Mattagami First Nation. (Nick Dunne)



TIMMINS — A child runs over from the Hollinger Park playground and looks silently at the display: moccasins, shoes, teddy bears, tobacco ties, and orange shirts lined up neatly near the entrance. Moments later, her mother joins her. 

Watching is Lorraine Naveau, an organizer of the memorial to the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave at the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia. The mother looks at Naveau, smiles, and says, “Thank you.” Naveau smiles back. Earlier, the mother had brought her daughter to the memorial to drop off a polka-dotted teddy bear, Naveau says, and the mother had explained to her daughter what they were for in a way a four-year-old could understand. “The girl asked her mom: ‘Will they take me away?’” Naveau says. The mother cried. 

This isn’t the only local memorial; shoes and moccasins line the steps of city hall, and the flags are at half-mast. The Timmins Native Friendship Centre and the Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre lit sacred fires on Monday. 

Though the children’s remains were discovered thousands of kilometres away, news of the mass grave has inspired a national response.

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In Ontario, Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, called for Canada to “urgently prioritize resources and bring home the lost children.” On May 30, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa urged the federal and provincial governments to support the search for children at other sites; Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford issued a statement in which he said, “We will work with the federal government and Indigenous communities to move this important work forward as we aim to support the identification, commemoration and maintenance of residential school burial grounds.”

As local, provincial, and federal leaders react to the news, the Cree and Ojibwe communities of Timmins and the James Bay area are grieving for the children who were found and those who’ve yet to be found. TVO.org speaks with community members about how they’re coping and what needs to happen next. 

Lorraine Naveau, member of Mattagami First Nation and organizer of the Hollinger Park memorial

closeup of children's shoes
At Hollinger Park, in Timmins, Lorraine Naveau has organized a memorial to the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave near Kamloops. (Nick Dunne)

Monday is when we found out, and that’s when I went into action here and set up the site with the help of [NAN Deputy Grand Chief Walter Naveau]. We are trying to do this for nine days and to gather 215 shoes to honour the children, because what’s happened to them should never have happened. We can’t not talk about it, not do anything about it. Something needs to be done. It’s hard. It’s opening up old wounds for a lot of people. It’s hard to understand, but those who have been in residential schools understand, and those who heard it secondhand: we still feel the effects. They’re not just forgotten children. Their spirit is alive.

We chose Hollinger Park because it’s a place where children play. We want other parents to think about what our children went through. It’s hard for some people to come in here and see, reading that sign. It may hit them in the spot where they might have just ignored it before. They’ll see what the government has done, the churches.

Everybody that has come and had a short conversation with me has all been positive. They’ve been supportive. Some have been angry that the government and the church has done this, because they don’t understand how. Their remarks to me are: “How could our people do that to your people, to your children?” And we say: “Well, we’re trying to understand, too.” But when people come in, and when they do look at the stuff, I can see the hurt in them.

We believe that there are more burial grounds, and those school grounds need to be checked. They need to be done. Because there’s a lot of children that never got to go home. Where are they? We can find 215 children. Where are all the other children that never went home?

Mickayla Bird, executive director of the Timmins Native Friendship Centre

It was my birthday. That’s where I had started seeing the news articles and social-media posts being made. My first impression was more of a shock. But at the same time, it was almost like a sense of relief that these individuals were found. The reason I say relief is because these stories are still known to us. It brought me back to those stories. We had a distant relative of mine, Charlie Hunter, who didn’t return from residential school. It’s not just this one person that it’s happened to: this is national.

two masked woman and one masked man stand in front of a friendship centre
Mickayla Bird (left) with colleagues from the Timmins Native Friendship Centre. (Nick Dunne)

Because of the pandemic, it’s been making work more complicated in terms of trying to plan social events or trying to plan ceremony. But we decided it would be only suitable for us to host a sacred fire, to take that time to reflect and ensure we’re honouring those children in a respectful and honourable way. Sometimes I’ll go by the fire, and sometimes I won’t. If I’m just around it, that’s enough for me to be able to have that ability to do that self-reflection and pray from within. Sometimes that’s enough. And I think, at that moment, that’s all that was needed. To me, when I look at it, it signifies that we still have a duty, a responsibility, to take care of our children today.

We still need supports with our people who are struggling with addictions as a result of this. If you’re not shown nurturing and love that you should be receiving at home from a very young age, it brings us to where we are today. We need supports in every direction at this point.

If I’m speaking with honestly and truthfully, it needs to happen faster than what it has before — not putting these inquiries on the back burner. I know that we are going through a pandemic now. But we’re still working. I’m still working. So work still needs to get done. When I think about what has transpired, it’s still happening in other ways today. We really need to home in on that and show that respect to find truth, look at the truth, not just as Indigenous people but as a nation, and try to work toward healing together.

Jules Tapas, member of Fort Albany First Nation and traditional healer at Misiway Milopemahtesewin Community Health Centre

a man in a cap holds a glass while sitting by water
Jules Tapas is a member of Fort Albany First Nation, the former location of the St. Anne’s residential school. (Nick Dunne)

I think about my parents. That’s the first thought: what they went through, because they were in residential school. But my clients are all very triggered. Some of them don’t even speak about it. One person I know has had to delete all the posts he sees about it. He said, “It’s triggering so much for me right now. I cannot process this.”

As a day-school survivor, I thought: Why were we there? I didn’t even know how to read and write in there, because you were always being abused. The only thing that kept me alive was my rage. I think it’s what saved me, because I was always fighting. Getting shot, getting stabbed is just minor stuff. Papercuts. But it’s the scars — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — that last. I’m just grateful for the healing that I received for many, many years. I think that’s what balances me right now. About 25 years ago today, I would have probably been on a rampage again. 

It’s sad to say: you’re getting validated again by these children. These bodies had to be found to validate what happened in those schools. It’s sad to get validated that way from the government, from the media: that this atrocity had to be revealed first. And people are carrying these atrocities with them, the memories. That’s why there are a lot of addictions out there, a lot of suicides.

I think what they wanted in the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada] were museums for its history — like the Holocaust. I think that needs to happen to educate the world and others. To say: this is what happens with those government policies and what happened within these churches. I think people are hungry for the truth. A lot of people are hungry for the truth, because they’ve been denied for a long time. 

I don’t think we’ll ever be finished. This is the ancestral connection we have; that’s how we are connected, people as people. When one generation never talked about their pain, and another generation doesn’t talk about their pain — it’s going to come out of you sooner or later. But all of a sudden, once they start speaking, that’s when your trauma will kind of come down a bit.

With what’s happening right now, I know there’s a lot of healing being done. That’s a good thing.

Greta Visitor, of Cree Nation of Wemindji, social worker and former student at the Bishop Horden residential school

I didn't realize how impacted I was about the discovery of the 215 remains.

I was crying, and I didn’t realize how impacted I was until I watched a tribute to the 215 children that were found. I was crying for me, too. All children who entered that system and ran the risk of being lost forever. When I first went into the system, according to the records, I was eight years old. I've never been to prison, but I imagine it’s similar — part of being detained or being kept somewhere, to always line up and be known by a number. I can remember the numbers that I was assigned to this day. 

woman with long brown hair and glasses
Greta Visitor was a student at the Bishop Horden residential school, in Moose Factory,
from 1959 to 1973. (Facebook)

I think because I have been around the block or from life experience, it gave me more perspective, and I find myself working in the help field today as a social worker. I've embraced education because my grandfather said education is lifelong experience, learning is a lifelong experience, and taught that through example. So what can I do? I became sober through counselling and was able to regain control or put that inner critic further back. 

But we need justice for those 215 children and the others that may be found, because the majority of those children probably died at the hands of the individuals that were running those schools. There should be criminal charges to those individuals. Maybe this incident of the 215 children could help kickstart things: to have people shake their heads and get their heads up. It’s time to say, “I have to wake up and take my place in this society, take my rightful place." 

But I also want to share another little story with you that I think has had a profound impact on me. My grandmother used to call me home from residential school every Sunday. And she would ask me to write letters for her. She would dictate them in Cree, and I would transcribe the words into English. I would send them to my aunts, my uncles who were at the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie. I would translate them for her once she would receive letters back from my aunt, my uncle.

As a kid I was bothered by the fact that I had to write letters for her. And, yet, that was her piece of resistance. She wanted to ensure at least one of her grandchildren would retain the language. And I didn't realize that what she would give me would carry through the rest of my life — to be a resistance fighter.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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