Residential school survivors grapple with renewed trauma after remains of 215 children uncovered

For years, survivors of Canada’s brutal residential school system spoke out about the missing Indigenous children who were unaccounted for in the known death toll.

Now, survivors all across the country are grappling with renewed trauma in the face of the confirmation last week that 215 First Nations children were buried in a mass grave near a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Rose Miller is one of those survivors.

Seventy-three years ago, Miller walked through the doors of Kamloops Indian Residential School as a seven-year-old girl.

On Monday, she returned to the place she called hell.

“I just remember the Nun pulling up her sleeves like this and jumping and hitting us on the back with that strap about 10 times,” she said.

“We had to clean everything -- yeah, some people were punished and they would have to scrub these stairs with a toothbrush.”

Memories came flooding back as she entered the chapel. She could point out where pews used to be lined up, which side was for girls and which was for boys.

"This is the heeby jeeby place,” she said. “The evil place.”

Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. has proven what many survivors have been saying for years.

Starting around the late 1800s, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into residential schools that aimed to erase their culture. Children were faced with sexual and physical abuse, and many did not make it out alive. The last school closed in 1996.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that around 4,100 to 6,000 children died due to neglect, disease and abuse at these schools.

But it’s long been known that due to missing records and unmarked graves, the death toll is much higher. 

In Ontario, Geronimo Henry placed teddy bears on the steps of his former residential school to honour the 215 children found last Thursday.

He knew he could’ve been one of them.

"I even tried to commit suicide when I got out,” he told CTV News.

He went to the Mohawk Institute Residential School from 1942 to 1953, spending his whole childhood trapped there.

Henry still wonders what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been taken to the school, and was able to experience the love he deserved as a child.

"Nobody told me goodnight, nobody told me ‘I love you,’ and nobody hugged me in 11 years and that's the most important years of your life,” he said.

He’ll never forget the story about the apple trees.

“The story was under every apple tree: there's a child, under there,” he said.

The Mohawk Institute Residential School was one of the longest running in Canada. It opened in 1828, only closing in 1970, and was the model for the others that followed.

There were 139 residential schools across the country.

The former residential school is now a museum. Some say 15,000 children, or more, went to this residential school alone. Children were brought here from all over the country.

"Because the further you remove a child from their family, you know, the less likely they want to run away,” Janis Monture, executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, told CTV News. Monture aided in restoring the Mohawk Institute Residential School site.

There are no final numbers yet on how many children died here. Governments and churches are not giving up those documents, or are saying they don’t exist.

"On their records, it doesn't say any students passed away, but we've heard testimonials from survivors, and other people doing research saying ‘yeah, there was definitely [deaths], there had to have been at some point, especially [since] there was a TB outbreak here,” Monture said.

They’ve done radar scans for bones at the school site. They want to do more.

“We haven't done around the building, we haven't done where the barns used to be,” Monture said.

In the back is a wall of names.

“The students would leave their mark here when they attended the school because they were pretty much just known as their number,” Monture said.

It’s hard for Monture, who is from Six Nations of the Grand River, to work here, but she feels she has to.

“To think that thousands of kids had to go through this, being taken from your parents at such a young age and not seeing them, and being forced to be child labour,” Monture said.

Survivors are calling for all residential school grounds to be checked for unmarked graves, and say this initiative should be paid for by the government and churches — the forces that were behind these destructive schools. 

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report in 2015, the Commission requested in 2009 that Indian Affairs cover the cost of identifying unmarked cemeteries and gravesite at residential schools, which was projected to be in excess of $1.5 billion.

“The request was denied in December 2009,” the report stated. “The federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance.” 

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With files from APTN reporter Tina House

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.