By McKinley Leonard-Scott
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
CHIPPEWAS/ONEIDA/MUNSEE – Following the uncovering of evidence suggesting a mass grave site at a former Kamloops residential school, local first nations communities are reacting to the discovery, mourning the 215 children who were lost and now found, and putting some thought into the further investigation of local residential school sites. It’s a process that won’t happen quickly, and will take into consideration the emotional and psychological impacts of what could be uncovered.
“We’re in the very preliminary stages; we need to consult with our community as well as discuss with other First Nations communities, because some children from outside of Chippewas attended the school here, too,” explained Chief Jacqueline French.
Mount Elgin Residential School stood on Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and operated from 1851 until 1946, and then later as a day school after 1967. Historical records paint a grim picture of the student experience – students have spoken of poor medical treatment, malnutrition, physical abuse, and long hours of physical labour on the school’s farm. Of course, the lived experience of residential school survivors varies on an individual basis; for some still on the healing journey, dialogue about residential schools can re-ignite pain and trauma. Hence, the careful approach that the First Nation will take.
“We need to be prepared for what we may face,” added French.
“I think the initial reaction would be to want to find out,” said Chief Adrian Chrisjohn of Oneida Nation. He echoed the caution expressed by Chief French, and reminded that “people need time to heal.”
“It’s disbelief, that something like that could have gone undocumented for so long. The possibility that there could be more is very concerning,” said Chief Mark Peters of Munsee-Delaware Nation when asked about the Kamloops discovery. He said he’d support further investigation of the Mount Elgin site and others, such as Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, when all involved communities are ready to do so.
The National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation’s (NCTR) National Student Memorial Register lists five students who are known to have died at Mount Elgin Residential School, including: Courtland Claud, Evangeline Jackson, Helen May Seneca, McGahey, and Wetuhnashch (Simon Altman). It also lists over 2,800 names of unfound children who went missing at residential schools across the country. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, meaning there are still many survivors coping with the effects.
For all three chiefs, final parting comments reflected the need for better education about these real truths of Canadian history which have seemingly been denied or forgotten. Education must begin at a young age, in elementary school, and curriculums drafted in consultation with First Nations communities.
“I would call on those educators and programme designers to step up and work with First Nations communities to shift the way we approach and teach Canadian history,” said French.
McKinley Leonard-Scott is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Middlesex Banner . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.