Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…
– Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. Picture in your mind’s eye an Indian agent driving through town, opening the door of his truck and snatching a child from the road, to spirit him away over a thousand miles to residential school. As you imagine the scene you may be in a safe place, such as your home or a café. Or on a train taking you to school or work. Unlike the child, you board the train willingly, whether following a familiar route or going on an adventure.
When the children board the train, it is icy cold and strange. They are all alone, without Mum or Dad or Grandma. The train conductor knows this—he’s done this run before, driving the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of frightened children, crying for their family. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into moonless sky. The train conductor hears the small voices and remembers them always1.
If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. Sound the alarm. Send out search parties and shine lights in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communication lines growing taut with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high running through darkness of the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.
In the image above, you can see sk’elep howling. I can’t tell if he feels rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.
Sk’elep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at powwows, as fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.
The train whistle is gone but sk’elep always sings at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.
Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977. Sk’elep or coyote is the traditional trickster figure in the pantheon of Secwepemc mythology.
- See section where Ry Moran talks about a train conductor who transported children from northern Manitoba to residential school.