This post includes details about colonialism and residential schools and could be upsetting. If you are a residential school survivor or intergenerational survivor and are in need of support, please call the National Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419. NWT residents can also speak with a trained responder for free by calling the NWT Help Line at 1-800-661-0844. The NWT Help Line, which is confidential, has an option for follow-up calls.
In recent weeks, the media attention on residential schools has been hard to ignore with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation’s announcement on May 27, 2021, that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found in unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School—which was run by the Catholic Church from 1893–1969 and the federal government from 1969–1978—was one of more than 130 residential schools that operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996. Following the media attention in Kamloops, Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan found the remains of 35 previously unidentified children, and Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba indicated they are working to identify 104 children at multiple burial sites at the former residential school. It is very likely that these findings will continue across Canada as well as here in the NWT.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recognized the existence of 15 Indian Residential Schools in what is now the Northwest Territories, though the Indian Residential School system here also included more than 30 day schools, hostels (including tent hostels), seasonal schools, and hospital schools.
During the residential school era, Indigenous children were taken from their families, communities, and lands, and made to live in government-funded, church-run institutions designed to “kill the Indian in the child” (Milloy 2017). Children were prevented from speaking their language and practicing their culture. Many were also subject to physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse.
While the news out of Kamloops has been shocking for many Canadians, residential school survivors and Indigenous communities, including those in the NWT, have been telling us about the deadly consequences of attending residential school and the existence of unmarked graves for years. Following on the testimony of thousands of survivors, the TRC devoted an entire volume of its final report and six of the 94 Calls to Action (numbers 71 to 76) to missing children and unmarked burials. The Commission also documented more than 6000 deaths, though the actual number of children who died at residential school is likely much higher.
Many people in the NWT have family members who never returned from residential school—the TRC confirmed 252 student deaths in the territory, though here again, the actual number is likely much higher. At present, only one residential school graveyard has been officially identified in the NWT. In Fort Providence, a memorial erected by the community near to previously unmarked graves on the site of the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School (1867-1960) includes “names and partial names of many, many children from communities running the entire length of the Mackenzie River valley” (TRC 2015). While the focus on marked and unmarked graves on residential school grounds is important, some children who died while institutionalized were buried in local cemeteries. Rarely were they returned home.
The Board and staff of the NWTRPA express our deepest condolences to all Indigenous families whose loved ones died or went missing while at residential school. Our thoughts are with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, Muskowekwan First Nation, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, and all Indigenous peoples during this time of grief.
We believe that thoughts and statements are not sufficient. We also have a responsibility to all those who attended residential school, but especially those who died while institutionalized, to act. We encourage everyone, in particular non-Indigenous residents of the NWT and Canada, to learn about the history and legacy of the residential school system and the ways in which oppressive colonial policies and practices, past and present, have contributed to deep inequities in this territory and this country, and to engage in meaningful action to bring about justice and change.
Given the importance of recreation to the assimilationist goals of the residential school system, those of us in the recreation sector have a unique responsibility to act. In 2018, the NWTRPA committed to work with intention to advance decolonization and reconciliation through our work, workplace, and relationships. (We recently reported on some of our work on this goal here.) In response to the news from Kamloops, we have undertaken a number of additional actions including:
sending a letter to the Prime Minister of Canada calling on the Federal Government to assist Indigenous communities in identifying graves connected to the residential school system, properly fund resting places for those who died while at residential school, implement the 94 Calls to Action and 215 Calls for Justice, and honour the treaties;
making a donation to the YWCA NWT and the national First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, two organizations that support children, youth, women and families so they have equitable opportunities. Both work with predominantly Indigenous peoples and provide direct support of residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors through a multitude of social support services, advocacy, and legal action; and
advocating, through our involvement with the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA), for those in the recreation sector to further educate themselves on the history and legacy of the residential school system and to pursue justice and equity for Indigenous peoples.
Over the coming year, we will continue to use our website and social media channels, and our conference and workshops to connect recreation, colonialism, and reconciliation. We will also continue work on “How I Survived,” a research project on the history of recreation at NWT residential schools, alongside Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser from the University of Alberta and residential school survivors.
If you are looking for more ways to take action towards reconciliation, we suggest 150 Acts of Reconciliation, created by Drs. Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky.