My long-awaited education on residential schools


A native boy raped by a priest and forced by another to rub the brown of his knuckles until they bleed.

These images haunted me this week as I reported the discovery in Saskatchewan of the remains of 751 people, many of them children, on the lush green lands of an Indigenous group.

[Read: Hundreds More Unmarked Graves Found at Former Residential School in Canada]

The boy was Solomon Wawatay, now 63, a survivor of a residential school in Quebec and the father of Cezin Nottaway, a charismatic leader who gave me my long-awaited Indigenous education.

Like the children whose remains were discovered this week, Mr. Wawatay was among 150,000 Indigenous children who passed through one of the schools run by the church between 1883 and 1996. Many later said they had been sexually, emotionally and physically abused, and that they were not allowed to speak. their languages. Others have disappeared, their parents have left to think about their fate.

[Read: How Thousands of Indigenous Children Vanished in Canada]

The find in Saskatchewan – just weeks after a similar discovery of unmarked graves in British Columbia – was a chilling reminder of Canada’s long-standing mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. He also recalled the historic amnesia of our country when it comes to taking responsibility for the suffering of indigenous people.

When I was growing up in Montreal in the 1980s, my first encounter with Indigenous peoples occurred in my high school history textbook, where we learned how 17th century French settlers in what is now Quebec encountered fierce resistance from the Iroquois nation, who were portrayed as barbarian warriors.

While studying history in college and learning about the dangers of silenced minority voices, it wasn’t until I returned to Canada about four years ago that I had an essential and late history lesson by bringing back the profile of Mrs. Nottaway, an indigenous chief. She told me how she turned to her grandmothers’ moose and rabbit meat recipes for healing and cultural affirmation.

[Read: In Canada, Hunting and Preserving an Indigenous Way of Life]

In January 2018, during a moose hunting expedition in the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Quebec, about 85 miles north of Ottawa, Ms. Nottaway also explained to me how her two parents were sent to residential schools. , a trauma that still reverberated in his family.

On Friday, still shaken by Saskatchewan history, I called her and her father, Solomon Wawatay, and asked them how the events of the week had affected them. Mr. Wawatay told me that the discovery had awakened some difficult memories.

In the 1960s, he was taken from his parents at the age of 6 and sent to a boarding school in Amos, in northwestern Quebec. There, at the age of 8, he says, he was raped by a priest in his thirties. “I was just a child. I kept it hidden because I didn’t want to be laughed at, ”he told me, sobbing. “He has never been prosecuted or punished. “

He also remembered an incident where another priest forced him to rub his knuckles until they bled, remembering that he had said, “Take that dirty color off your hand, you dirty Indian!” Mr. Wawatay said he was also beaten.

At school, Mr. Wawatay said he and other Indigenous children were not allowed to speak their native Algonquin language. So they sneaked into the forest to trap rabbits and talk Algonquin among themselves, away from the prying eyes of the priests.

He eventually left school at age 13, but Mr Wawatay said his experiences there stayed with him and other survivors, some of whom used alcohol to try and numb the pain. He said the parents of the children who were taken away were also deeply traumatized.

Mr. Wawatay said: “Some parents drank because their children were gone. Many feared that if they did not send their children to school, they would be arrested. Because of the residential schools, we had social problems like malnutrition, dirty diapers, alcoholism.

Ms Nottaway recalled that her mother, Suzanne Nottaway, had scars on her body from repeated lashes at a residential school. She was so upset when young Mrs. Nottaway was growing up that she had a hard time saying, “I love you. Her father, she added, had turned to alcohol and had become indescribably sad.

“We have a responsibility to help our parents by carrying the pain they have endured,” she told me. “It’s not the past. As this week reminded us, the repercussions always happen. “

Today, Suzanne Nottaway works in a prison where she teaches inmates about Aboriginal culture, while Mr. Wawatay is a leader in her community.

Credit…Cezin Nottaway

For Mr. Wawatay, healing began gradually in his 40s, he told me, after an elder told him to let go of the pain and draw strength from the traditions of his ancestors. It is a lesson he passed on to his children and grandchildren.

“All my high school years I walked on eggshells until my elders taught me that this is my land, this is our way of life, and I started defending myself that way. He remembers. “It takes strength to forgive and I’ve done it before, but this week has brought a lot of anger,” he added.

He told me he hoped the latest revelations would be a catalyst for expanding Indigenous rights, including gaining autonomy over their lands. On the lands of his people, he said, white hunters regularly crept in during the moose hunting season, forcing the community to set up roadblocks.

Ms Nottaway added that she hoped the news of the graves would lift Canada out of its historic complacency and spark a new national awareness of the past.

“In the past, they took our voices away from us,” she told me. “But now Canada can’t hide from it. Are you going to deny children’s bones?


  • On Thursday, my colleague Ian Austen and I wrote about the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves in Saskatchewan, which sparked a national introspection.

  • Police were investigating this week after two BC churches were set on fire on Indigenous lands. One avenue of inquiry is whether the fires were arson.

  • Last week, I shared my feelings of isolation while staying in a quarantine hotel at the Toronto airport. Canada will lift the hotel quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated Canadians on July 5 at 11:59 p.m. But the joy could be dampened as only 13 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated, according to Canadian government data.

  • Last weekend, I reported on the arrest of a black teenager in Montreal who, for some, evoked memories of George Floyd.

  • The Biden administration has urged a court to dismiss a challenge filed by tribal and environmental groups against a pipeline that would carry Canadian oil through Minnesota and Wisconsin.


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