Growing up, Jeannine Whitehouse says she was deeply impacted by the stories her grandmother shared about attending Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
“We’ve always known about and we’ve always talked about it and it was just never seen as truth,” said Whitehouse. “And so if you are finding out for the first time about these stories, about this history, I encourage people to dig deeper.
“Listening to our community, our Indigenous community, is going to be key.”
Last week, Cowessess First Nation, located east of Regina, announced that using ground-penetrating radar, it had identified an estimated 751 unmarked graves in the community at the site of the now-demolished Marieval Indian Residential School.
Confirmation of the discovery followed last month’s news out of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc that using the same technology, the band located what it believes to be the remains of 215 children buried on the former Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds.
This is the first time Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said he’s seen the issue of residential school deaths receive so much attention.
Information about residential schools has long been available but rarely accessed, Frogner said.
“Perhaps this is that teachable moment where things begin to happen, because for a very long time it’s been a tremendous silence,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this is what it has taken to bring this dialogue onto the national stage.”
And while many people want to learn or learn more about what happened at these abusive federally-sanctioned, church-run institutions where Indigenous children were kept away from their families in a widespread assimilation effort, “these are the most personal, intimate and profoundly shattering events of these families lives,” he said.
“That’s how they should be recognized and dealt with.”
Shana Cardinal, a mental health therapist with Regina Public Schools (RPS) and a private practice in the city that mostly serves Indigenous clients, said that with the recent news, a lot of trauma is resurfacing.
She said that many elders in the community do have stories to share, but are grieving and need time and space right now. Some parents have turned to her to help bridge the gap that exists for their young children grappling with the devastating mistreatment of their families.
Through RPS, she said she’s also had to find ways to talk to tuned-in non-Indigenous children full of questions about residential schools and she’s been trying to answer them age-appropriately.
“I don’t think there’s ever a time that’s too young to start those conversations,” Cardinal said.
“People should be open and honest about what happened.”
And that means going beyond the colonial narrative that has historically excluded Indigenous viewpoints, said Whitehouse, working as the Regina Catholic School Division Indigenous education co-ordinator.
“It’s really, really difficult to be in this position and have to be accountable to my community, my Indigenous community and have to work in a position of our faith-based school division,” she said.
“When we looked at 60 to 70 per cent of residential schools being Catholic-run, I think that we have a larger responsibility to work with the community to find a way to walk beside each other to honour the truth.”
The Catholic archdiocese in Regina is working closely with Cowessess First Nation to share information and build a relationship, said Whitehouse, noting that is not necessarily the case for other Catholic institutions.
She noted the sadness and anger that has long existed over the residential school system.
“I think the more we can meet that anger with compassion and understanding and validating that we hear you, I think that’s going to take us a long way.”
Frogner said that reconciliation is, at its core, about building a relationship over time.
He encourages people to turn to Indigenous-designed resources and Indigenous-led organizations and initiatives to build understanding about the residential school system.
“Whether we like it or not, this is an intimate relationship that will define the identity of Canada going forward,” he said.
“It’s for us to decide how we want this relationship to work. This is a proving moment for us to make those decisions and hopefully do the right thing.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.