A young jingle-dress dancer honouring the lost at the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery
Eagleclaw Thom

Do Residential Schools ever close?

Eagleclaw Thom
Vendredi 4 juin 2021 - 18:50

There is a lot of anger.

There’s a building on the west side of Regina, Saskatchewan, called The Paul Dojack Youth Centre. It is a jail for children, or… as it’s called in polite society, a “Youth Correctional Facility.”

Youth advocates I’ve spoken to have described the population at the centre as “a sea of brown faces,” which isn’t surprising given that roughly 95% of all Saskatchewan's youth prison population are Indigenous.

The Paul Dojack Youth Centre, built in 1950, stands on historic grounds, although most don’t know it. It is the former home of the Regina Indian Industrial School.

Children who were forced to attend that residential school were coerced into learning how to operate and maintain farming equipment – though it’s worth noting that they were never able to even practice and prosper from those lessons. Indian Agents would soon after ban communal farming for Indigenous peoples on reserve and refuse to allow them to sell their products.

The children at the Regina Indian Industrial School were also forced to speak solely in English, which meant losing their own languages. They were further instructed that if they practiced their culture they would have to endure “corporal punishment” by the principal and teachers. And they were taught that late at night, when their teachers came to check on them, they were to be very quiet when they were sexually assaulted.

There is a lot of grief.

The Regina Indian Industrial School isn’t one of the longest standing residential schools in Canada. The school was in operation from 1891-1910 but remained standing until 1948, when it was destroyed in a fire. In its short time in operation, it did accrue a body count. There have been at least 35 unmarked gravesites found near the property so far and records indicate even higher numbers. The total body count (from First Nations and Metis children) therein remains unknown. One estimate points to more than 55 students buried. All unmarked – except for one, the first principal.

A young jingle-dress dancer honouring the lost at the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery
A young jingle-dress dancer honouring the lost at the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery. The only marked gravesite is that of the first principal.

In 1980, the land that the graveyard exists upon was privatized and sold to a private developer. In the following years, the land changed hands a few times. And it wasn’t until 2012, when it was brought to the attention of a few concerned citizens (Indigenous peoples), that a concerted effort came together to protect it from being developed into condos.

Now I want you to imagine that for a second: you go to the gravesite of your cousin or uncle or auntie to remember them, only to find in its place a Starbucks and a Subway with condos above them. It’s a very nice, gentrified area, with gorgeous greenery and no sign of the kidnapped and murdered children beneath their feet.

There is a lot of pain.

In 2017, an article came out in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix that went largely unnoticed. It spoke to the continued abuse of the youth who were “cared for" at The Paul Dojack Youth Centre, at that time known as the Saskatchewan Boys School. While this wasn’t officially a youth prison, it was a type of residence where they continued to primarily keep First Nations youth.

Former residents who speak of sustained physical and sexual abuse at the facility have for years been seeking damages from the provincial government. Merchant Law Group, which has been representing these plaintiffs in court, told me that the institution was responsible for at least 281 cases of abuse, many of which were sexual in nature. They also confirmed that active cases are still going to settlement to this day.

The province’s quiet settlements have so far topped at least $2.7 million. It turns out that that’s the price for violating the bodies, dignity, and safety of 281 children who trusted you.

The atrocities that happened at residential schools are wide-ranging and traumatizing to hear. A longtime friend of mine from Regina, Saskatchewan, shared a story shortly after the discovery of the 215 children found in Kamloops, BC, originally known as Tk’emlúps.

The quote is from his auntie Irene Favel at a CBC Town Hall in Regina in 2008:

A story shared at a CBC town hall in Regina in 2008


It’s hard to place a number on how many children were murdered in residential school, or how many children were left to die from disease or starvation or other means. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has identified 3,200 confirmed deaths at the residential schools in Canada. There are estimates that the real number could be exponentially higher than the current official count.

According to the TRC, 32% of those confirmed deaths did not identify the names of those who passed. For 49% of the confirmed deaths, there is no listed cause of death. In some instances, such as the Regina Indian Industrial School, there was no record of a graveyard even being established. “There was no thought or attention paid to these children,” said Mary Jesse, Registrar for Luther College in Regina. “They weren’t recorded in obituaries. The principals didn’t note or record the existence of a cemetery in their annual reports to Indian Affairs.”

There is a lot of sadness.

We are now a few days into National Indigenous History Month. The moment has prompted me to reflect on just what the Canadian public know and don’t know about Indigenous peoples and our history.

They know about the atrocities committed in residential school – if they so choose to learn about them.

They now know about the mass graves these “schools” accrued.

And its apparent from reading comment threads on social media that many people think these things all happen in a “historical context,” as if it’s a thing of the past.

This year, I turned 40. My older brother attended the Lebret Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School. My younger sister, Amber Pelletier, attended the residence operated by the Marieval Community Education Centre, such a lovely name for such a place. She is the youngest person interviewed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Here’s what she told them:

“We could tell when the keepers were mad because they would use our number to call us or to talk to us. In breakfast line or supper, dinner line, if we were acting up they’d say, ‘Number 20.’ And then you just stopped whatever you were doing.”

That’s the only way we can refer to the children found now at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

215.

There is a lot of fear.

We have a lot of work to do. All peoples in what’s now known as Canada have a lot of work to do. One thing I can do is talk to my community, my reserve, and see if/when we find our stolen children’s graves if we can have a naming ceremony for those whose names never mattered enough to be recorded. This is something I can do: to remember and make amends for those who never came home.

As for everyone else? What can Canadians do?

I know that the federal government’s commitment to make a webpage listing the graveyards isn’t nearly enough. I’ve seen enough webpages disappear to know that without continued investment it will just go away. How many of you still have an active myspace page?

What we need are visible reminders that history is not just a thing of the past. We can’t continue to let history repeat itself as it currently is at the Paul Dojack Youth Centre and with the province of Saskatchewan’s blatant over-incarceration of Indigenous youth. Let’s call a duck a duck when we see it. “Residential School”, “Youth Centre”, “Boys School” – these have always been prisons for children.

It’s time for a national commemoration project to begin. In every town or city that was affected by Residential Schools, we need to erect monuments in plain sight. We could place cenotaphs, remembering and naming when possible those kidnapped and murdered children. We need as a country to remember that none of this was by accident. This was by design.

These Children were supposed to be forgotten; we can’t let that happen.

We also can’t continue imprisoning Indigenous children. We’ve failed too many generations for the sin of being born with the wrong skin colour. This is unacceptable. What’s most important instead is the wellbeing of the continual roster of Indigenous children being incarcerated on that same piece of land.

There is a lot of work to do.

Eagleclaw Thom is the Digital Campaigns Officer at the Council of Canadians. He was also an editor and cinematographer for the film 'RIIS from Amnesia', a documentary on the “rediscovery” of the cemetery at the Regina Indian Industrial School. Watch the film here