Being taken over by the colonization of indigenous territory, Native people were seen as wards of the state. The
government intended to assimilate, or in some cases, exterminate, the people by shaming, destroying their culture,
oppressing and controlling their lives. Residential schools were established with the government mandate carried out by
mainline churches which brought physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse to the children and youth. And
beyond that, to the families and communities. Catholic, United, Anglican churches were sanctioned by the government to
save the souls but kill the Indian within. The system lasted till 1997 when the last residential school was closed.
Around the country moving memorials like this are popping up to remember the 215 children whose remains were found buried in the
Kamloops Residential School cemetery (British Columbia).
This memorial to remember the children, the youngest of whom was three years of age, is displayed on the front steps of an old residential
school in Wiikwemkoong, next to Holy Cross Mission and the DayStar Center. The news of this discovery rocked Canada the first week of June, 2021, shocking most Canadians. More ground penetrating xray procedures are, and will be planned as it seems every school had a cemetery, or perhaps more than one. Not all students had bad experiences, but it seems that the majority did.
In the October 9, 2019, issue of the Manitoulin Expositor is the article titled Memorial Banner Recognizes Students Who
Died In Care At Residential Schools. To quote from this article: “An estimated 4,200 young Indigenous people across
Canada died in the residential school system, with 2,800 named victims being honoured at a recent memorial ceremony in
Ottawa and the acknowledgement of hundreds more death records that remain nameless.” Above the article The
Expositor reprinted the names of seventy victims of the two residential schools (one boys school and one girls school) in
Spanish (Ontario) who were Manitoulin Island children who died while students at the schools. Thirty-six names were of
the years 1917-1920 alone, twenty students did not have designated dates, while a couple of children were 1917 with a
few in the 1930’s. These seventy listed were only a fraction of the total 4,200. Many of these children were buried in
unmarked graves. Most last names of the victims are familiar to me, and when I think of their families today, what
tremendous pain they suffered, and the pain remains. The cry has gone out, “Wake up people of Canada, we are still here.
Please recognize and respect us. Listen to the stories we have lived and let us live as friends.”
Children were forcibly taken from their families to fulfill the mandate of the government and the church, some from the
age of three, some not seeing their parents and home till age sixteen. Upon arrival at the school they were processed,
given a pig shave, hair shorn (hair is significant to Native people), dressed in the institutional garb, given a number to
replace their names and told never to speak their first language which was their only language. Physical labour was hard
as each student was assigned to jobs, some of which were too strenuous for kids. The children were treated like little
prisoners and given meager, poor food. Many students made escape attempts, some successful, others not. Evenings in
the dormitories carried the sounds of lonely, crying and mistreated children. At night many children were sexually preyed
upon. Discipline was hard. My friend Rosemary was caught speaking Ojibwe. Heard by a nun, Rosemary’s head was
shaken and her cheeks were tightly pinched. Looking up at the nun she asked, “Why do you hurt me like this when you
tell me that we are created in God’s image?”
Let me share with you real life illustrations of abuse: three in the residential schools and one that occurred in a
Only once I have seen the FB post of a Wiky man who is a traditional native teacher and medicine man. Yes, true
medicine, directly from the plants and trees. I can speak to this as earlier this year a condition called trigeminal neuralgia
visited me a second time. My doctors said it was incurable and I’d have to manage the pain for the rest of my life. From
this man I was given (twice now) finely ground tamarack bark which cured me. I’m ever so grateful to be relieved of the
extreme and consistent pain. Thanks to our Creator for putting medicines into nature around us.
I wept through the reading of the medicine teacher FaceBook post…
“Today I got rid of shame. It took the lives of 18 of my friends and neighbors. Shame, in silence eating away at your happiness, crying
inside. When I was a young altar boy my body was used like a woman by a priest and a (Jesuit) brother Hinton. Silence was ensured
by shifting the blame to me saying “not what I did to you but what WE did”.
Today with almighty GOD’s help I realize it was not (this) little boy’s fault. Today the guilt and shame I let go. It does not belong to
me. Like a vapour it’s gone. Today I am free. Today I start a new life. Today I prayed and forgiveness was given and received.
Almighty LORD GOD CHI MEEGWETCH (a big thank you). I ALSO PRAY FOR THE HUNDREDS OF VICTIMS, PRAY FOR THE ONES WHO
DIED, FOR THE ONES STILL LIVING. A SPECIAL PRAYER FOR YOU TO BE FREE AND LIVE.”
My friend Rosemary has related many experiences from her time at the school in Spanish. One day she and her little
friend Marilyn were assigned to dust and vacuum a large area on the second floor of the school. A nun entered the room
and with a sweep of her eyes was displeased with the work of the young girls. In particular, with Marilyn. The nun lived
up to her reputation by releasing her hot temper on the girl by pushing her around and chasing her. Marilyn took the
vacuum hose and put it to the nylon stockings of the “Miss” as the nuns were called. This further angered the Miss who
promptly hauled Marilyn away. She was never seen again. Rosemary looked for her day after day and she never was
seen again. Now, many decades later, when Rosemary occasionally visits the site, she wonders if her little friend lies
under the soil at the school cemetery.
On APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) I viewed a documentary which was a moving testimony from a Six
Nations elder. (The Six Nations Territory near Brantford, Ontario, consisting of the Mohawk, Tuscarora, Seneca, Oneida,
Cayuga and Onondaga tribes.) Sitting on the grass in front of a historic building, the elder shared his story with a small
group of young white people who were visiting the Woodland Cultural Center, the former residential school he attended
on Six Nations Territory at Brantford, Ontario. The school had operated as the Mohawk Institute Residential School from
1928 – 1970, with two hundred students per year. The students nicknamed the school “mush hole”. Mush being the name
given to the porridge they ate every morning. Carlie Myke of the Woodland Cultural Center said, "This building needs to
be saved, not just to continue business as normal but to be a site of national conscience for a place where people can
come to learn about the history of residential schools in Canada and the experiences of survivors.” After two years of
restoration, it was opened with its purpose being to promote Mohawk heritage and culture.
In this school, Irene Favel, a student from 1941- 1949, as a young girl was assisting a nun with food preparation for
supper in the school kitchen. A priest passed through the room with a little girl of seven years of age. This very young
girl had gotten pregnant and birthed her child. In her arms was a tiny, newborn baby girl, dressed up in a pink outfit. The
two entered the boiler room where the baby was thrown alive into the furnace fire. Irene, working in the kitchen,
remembers the “pop”, and then the smell of flesh as it cooked and drafted to her work area. About this residential school
the elder speaker stated, “Hell was created here. I am a veteran of the Viet Nam war. If you’d ask which I would choose
– my experience in this school or Viet Nam, I would choose Viet Nam.”
For the most part indignities suffered were perceived as being from Jesus because it done by church people. But no, it
was from religiosity and very hard hearts lacking compassion and filled with evil and lust. Where were the expected
Christian standards, the decency, common sense and care? Indeed, this was a shameful chapter in history.
There are thousands of stories out there which Canadians have never heard. I wish you could hear some of them in
person. The abusive experiences affected the victim’s lives when they returned to the reserves, and it has trickled down in
the generations. What else is happening currently is that a number of Wiky people are being interviewed as to their sexual
abuse by the priests here on the reserve. This is opening the wounds and scars causing great trauma. Then there are the
triggers. To this day adults are traumatized by objects, food, words or anything that they remember from the past. That
means they are as the dictionary states, “subject to lasting shock as a result of an emotionally disturbing experience…” A
friend told me that candy is a trigger for her because a priest gave a child candy when abuse would take place.
This awakening to the trauma of our indigenous people is the beginning of a new day in history. It is my conviction and
hope that the following take place:
1) It will take years to document the ugly past, however I hope that immediate, new, and revolutionary actions will
be taken by our government and not get stuck in committees or in office files as they are now.
2) The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Commission will put the Action Plan into ACTION.
3) The Catholic church will own up to their sins and evil, the pedophiles to account and an apology from the Pope
for the sins of the priests, brothers and nuns, and to the Native people for their suffering.
4) Father Epoch, infamous in Wiikwemkoong for his relentless abuse of children at Holy Cross Mission, will be
exhumed from his burial spot next to Holy Cross, lessening the pain of many whom he abused.
5) Equality and respect be granted to every Indigenous, Metis and Inuit person in Canada.
6) First Nations will be given greater autonomy for self-governance within the realm of their cultural ways.
7) An awakening as to Who the Creator and Jesus are. Jesus is misunderstood by many. They need to know his love
and compassion. Isaiah 40:11. He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart.”
Please be informed. Awareness is huge. Rid yourself of the stereotype of the Indian. Uneducated, unsophisticated,
unseen, inferior, pagan, a sidekick (Tonto), impoverished, a dying race. And other misconceptions that I refrain from
mentioning. Every race is plagued with some undesirable, unpleasant and even nasty elements but we work for the
lessening of these and bring about change. Come, observe where I live and work. It will be an eyeopener. Looking for
the good in a race, and embracing those whom the Creator formed in a different mold from ours, brings rich
friendship and unity. I could share with you many stories of the caring and kindness in Native communities. Also
apparent is the contentment, sharing, and gentleness. It was easy to fall in love with indigenous people. Their openness,
hospitality, and acceptance surprised me. To be trusted is a treasure.
Learn about the Anishnabe way of life. Before colonization Native tribes practiced democratic governments. There was
order, teachings, practices and a structured way of life. Still today, there is structure. Reserves throughout the country are
well organized with a chief, band council, administrator and agencies and departments to cover the total needs of their
people. There is care from birth to death, spirituality, a deep respect for all of creation, and a multitude of other
manifestations that are noteworthy. They possess unique ways to resolve conflicts, sentence a criminal, fundraise for kids
whose family can’t afford hockey costs, and a humble way to accept a compliment, which is, “I’ll put it in my pocket”.
What Can You and Your Church Do?
1) Survey your neighborhood for indigenous people to support and serve them. Don’t just invite them to church.
Let them know of your concern and care for them. Always bring something. Packaged items such as water, a
basket with hand sanitizer, nuts, a gift card, etc. I find the Book of John, published by the Gideons, to be an
attractive and simple book to give out. Please do not distribute Bibles that are small print, yellow-paged, and
have no colour, illustrations or helps.
2) Celebrate Aboriginal Day, June 21, in a creative way. Fly a Canadian Native flag or tape one on your door.
It can be found online. I like the one that looks like the usual Canadian flag but has a Native man in the middle.
3) Visit a powwow or event that displays Native culture. It’s a great learning experience. Be sure to try a taco!
4) Invite a knowledgeable speaker to your congregation or group.
5) Break down barriers, build trust.
6) Drop by a Native Friendship Center if you live in a large city. Perhaps you can volunteer in some way.
7) If you know a Native person, invite him or her into your life for intentional engagement.
8) Let people see you as a real person, friendly, approachable, even vulnerable. Let them see what they value in
their Seven Grandfathers’ teachings: Wisdom, love, humility, courage, truth, honesty and respect.
9) Contact people who know the Native world or have connections for ways to get involved.
10) Love on the ignored, the hurting and neglected.
As to prayer requests, I think you can easily pick them out of this “epistle” without my listing them. This has been
lengthy but hopefully it will bring understanding, some clarity to the present issue, and move your heart and being to
stand with our indigenous people at this time with this critical issue of abuse and experiments which were carried out on
innocent children. Pray too for healing to the survivors who have suffered the essence of a lifetime of pain. A I write this,
one of these survivors, a good friend of mine, is in a mental institution after recently reliving the story of her abuse to
representatives of the Catholic church. As another survivor said, “It seems so surreal, and yet it is so real”.
Included with this letter you will find a list of resources. These books, YouTube videos and movies will be of value in
your research of Native history and people. One of my favourites is Dances With Wolves with Kevin Kostner. From this
historical fiction film, set in the time of the Civil War, comes not just knowledge of the time and way of life, but a feeling
which I find difficult to explain. Perhaps understanding, perhaps identification? It is my hope that what you have
learned will be communicated to others.
Chi-Miigwetch, a big thank you, for enduring to the end of this letter. Our Native people depend on you for support and
sharing the truth with your family and friends.
“All the things they tried to take from us in the past, we will gift to the next
generation. That is our ultimate response to the residential schools, our
ultimate act of truth telling: to say, WE ARE STILL HERE.”
The new dawn is here.
Shawn Atleo, Former National Chief
Assembly of First Nations