A photo featuring an 'Every Child Matters' T-shirt displayed prominently in front of an education building

We need to stop calling them “schools”

~when the outside is too much

By Jana-Rae Yerxa

the worlds within
have no need for orange shirts
the sacred law is honored
children are gifts

the worlds within
where waters, trees and rocks
are playgrounds holding safe space
for little ones to roam and dream

the worlds within
their long dark shiny hair
dancing with the wind
while running carefree
as children are meant to do

the worlds within
mothers, fathers
aunties, uncles
grandmothers and grandfathers
rest to the echoing
of play and laughter
filling their homelands

the worlds within

Schools do not require graveyards

“We need to stop calling them schools,” was my first thought after the news broke of the mass grave containing the bodies of 215 children at the site of the old Kamloops Indian Residential “School.” A month later another headline in the National Post made my heart skip a beat – “Hundreds of Bodies Reported Found in Unmarked Graves at Former Saskatchewan Residential School.” This time the number was 751 at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation.

No longer referring to such places as schools is part of the truth-telling that Canada, Canadians and Indigenous Peoples have yet to reckon with. Why do we need to stop calling them schools? Because schools do not require graveyards. In fact, schools, as we know and think about them today, are often viewed, however incorrect we may be, as institutions that carry possibilities and pathways for individuals to empower themselves and their communities. It is this conceptualization that muddies the water serving as a mental blockage, a strategic form of colonial erasure, that gets in the way of many being able to grasp the gravity of the crimes committed against Indigenous children and families by the State and the Church. What to call them instead has yet to be determined but for now, I will stick with “nightmare places.” Schools do not require graveyards.

My community, Couchiching First Nation, is next to the site of where the St. Margaret’s Indian Residential “School” used to stand. Former survivors, who are now our Elders, have also shared stories of children being buried there too. My grandparents, aunts and uncles attended St. Margaret’s.

When I was asked to share some reflections regarding the remains of children being found at the sites of former Indian Residential “Schools,” in this guest post, knowing there are more graves to be found, I wondered if I was up for it. Although we have heard stories, I am not comfortable saying,“We (I) already knew this.” The findings of children’s remains hit hard. I am left questioning what I thought or didn’t give enough thought to. I am reflecting on how to be there and hold space for my Old Ones, as I reach out to them, honoring the reciprocity of relationships.

One of my Old Ones honored themselves and our relationship by sharing with me the heaviness they were carrying in light of these children’s remains being found. The deep sadness that had been looming for me up until that point made its full entrance for me afterward. The triggers of trauma ebbs and flows. It can pop up fiercely and subside as quickly as it entered. That doesn’t mean our healing didn’t work or we are not as far as we thought we were. It simply means we are human and we have feelings. I know we are used to our Elders caring for us. Right now, they need us too- our ears and understanding. They need us to hold space for them, the way they normally do for us. 

So back to my phone call with my Old One. When I called back to check-in, my Old One told me, “I don’t want you to carry my things. Anger. Sadness. None of it. Those are mine to work through.” I knew they were referring to all they shared with me the day before. As they were telling me this, I thought, “Here they go, being their true elderish self, still teaching me, caring for me, looking out for me.” I paused before responding. Then I said “I am so glad you can share with me your feelings and voiced what that little child in Residential School couldn’t. And it is okay that I feel too when you share with me. That is the light in the darkness. Because we love each other, we can carry it together. We can carry sadness together. We can carry hurt together. We can carry anger together. Just like we carry joy together. This is what love allows us to do- to be together. Not to be alone.”

Days after the request to contribute to the blog, a timely email arrived. It was from my aunt. She shared a piece of writing that my late Uncle Leo Yerxa had written in 2008 after he attended the Residential School Apology at the House of Commons. My Uncle also attended St. Margaret’s. With the permission of him and my Aunt, I will leave you with his reflections in the hopes that you too will continue to reflect. His words are as relevant today, thirteen years later, after he wrote them. Here are my Uncle’s words:

Reflections by the late Leo Yerxa

Apologies require the slow mull, both to give and to receive. A mull brewed over time with hard chunks of statements, opinions and comments thrown into a simmering stock of childhood memories. The slow mull at least explaining the lateness of my submission.

On June 11th, 2008, as a former student at St. Margaret’s Residential School adjacent to Fort Frances, Ontario, I was a recipient of an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of Canada. I was invited by Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar to sit in the House of Commons gallery and watch the proceedings firsthand. What can I tell you? I laughed, I cried. You know, I really did. There were some wonderful statements made by passionate and knowledgeable individuals. At one point in the proceedings, a very elegant lady was addressing the assembly regarding respect for Native women. There was a loud cheer from the audience and a handful of people stood up to give her a standing “O”. Just then I felt a sharp slap on the back of my head and I heard someone say “Stand Up”. I turned around to see who had administered the blow. There sat a petite elderly woman wearing an ear-to-ear grin saying “I’m just being your grandmother!”

We both laughed. I stood up because that was exactly what my grandmother would have done to me if I was being disrespectful to anyone. That was one of the highlights of Apology Day for me. It made me feel at home-well House of Commons-of course.

After the speeches, there was a reception for the survivors and the dignitaries. And this is where the proverbial cookie crumbled. Without APOLOGY all the leaders of the parties, their staff, the Governor-General scurried right past us and out the door. Not so much as a how are you, let’s get together sometime, perhaps we’ll talk over coffee… All party leaders do claim to be transparent. Maybe they did stay for the reception and we just couldn’t see them.

So there we were-the survivors. All the darkness came rushing back to me. We were left surrounded by police and guards. I’m sure it was perfectly innocent but insensitive. It was reminiscent of the day decades earlier 2 black cars pulled into the yard. One car contained a government official and a member of the clergy. A police officer stepped out of the other car. They take away my brothers and sisters.

There we were-the survivors with hearts filled with hurt and no one to chat with. We didn’t have to talk to one another about our experiences. We could see our stories in each other’s eyes-pain, shame, grief, grieving and a multitude of other miseries. I can unequivocally state that the Indian school experience has destroyed any possibility I might have had of attaining a full life.

It’s afternoon and I decide to take those dysfunctions of mine(baggage leftover from Residential School)back home. In the days following the Apology, I listen to broadcasts and read articles about this historic, emotional day.

Comments were made about victim mentality and dwelling on the past. It was suggested that those of us who describe ourselves as survivors possessed a victim’s mentality. Not so. One has to bear in mind that many did not live to survive in that harsh and hostile environment. Dwelling on any sort of memory is probably unhealthy. However, there are memories that are impossible to forget.

It’s like a garment that has been soiled. I wash it every night in dreams of better days but in the morning the stain is still there. In the morning, I put on the garment and wear it all day long. As the day passes, its weight increases and by nightfall, I am exhausted again. “Let go,” people say but it’s not something I grasped and now clings to. It was grafted onto my very soul.

Then there were the usual statements about Residential Schools not being entirely bad. Indeed not all the clergies were predators and molesters. However, those who were not were complicit in the act by not protecting the CHILDREN. Now there might have been a few of my Residential School days when I did wear a smile but those smiles were quickly beaten off my face and their happy memories erased from my mind, forever.

There was an article I read about engendering the values of pride, independence and self-reliance. It was those very qualities that the Indian School was designed to destroy. They sought to strip us of our identity. If one dares contemplate the multi-generational toll that Indian schools exacted from students, it would be noted that it contributed to the myriad of social dysfunctions. The separation of parents from their children could have easily driven both to the brink of madness.

What we have to say as survivors must be said and heard by the people of Canada. That is how we will heal and Canada will have the opportunity to become the just and fair place it brags about being. In a perfect world of apologies, TRUTH would have to come first. If the truth was spoken, one of the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth would have been genocide. Canadians would be appalled and horrified at the treatment of children in Residential Schools. Relationship rebuilding and reconciliation can happen with TRUTH.

Mull done, Miigwetch

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About Leo Yerxa

Leo Yerxa was born on Little Eagle Reserve in 1947. He is an award-winning writer, illustrator and artist. In 1975, he was awarded the commission to design the 1976 series IV Olympic Coins. Yerxa also illustrated and published numerous children’s books. His book Last Leaf First Snowflake to Fall (1994) won multiple awards, such as Mr. Christie’s Book Award. He then put out the offbeat parable A Fish Tale (1995). In 2006, Yerxa received the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Book Illustration for his book Ancient Thunder. On September 1, 2017, Leo left this world. He was 70 years old.

About Jana-Rae Yerxa

Jana-Rae Yerxa is Anishnaabe from Couchiching, First Nation, located in Treaty #3 territory. She holds a Master of Social Work degree from Lakehead University and a Master of Arts degree, in Indigenous Governance, from the University of Victoria. As a post-secondary educator, published writer and poet, her work is grounded in Indigenous feminisms and decolonial frameworks. She remains committed to justice. Currently, Jana-Rae is Faculty of Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin with Seven Generations Education Institute