Listen to these songs to better understand Canada's history of residential schools

For decades, Indigenous artists have documented their history through song.

For decades, Indigenous artists have documented their history through song

Digging Roots, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Shawnee Kish have all incorporated Indigenous history into their music including Canada's residential schools system that forcibly separated children from their families. (Digging Roots/Facebook, Getty Images, Shawnee/Facebook; graphic by CBC)

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation honours the lost children and survivors of residential schools, which were established in the 1870s and existed until the mid-'90s. But news of unmarked graves being discovered across the country over the past few years proves that much of Canada's history of violence against Indigenous people is still being uncovered today.

For Indigenous communities everywhere, sharing these stories — and articulating the trauma that has transcended generations — is key to preserving their history and resisting colonial erasure. Some of the most powerful forms of that storytelling are expressed through art: poetry, theatre and music, just to name a few. 

Over the decades, the experiences of residential school survivors have been translated into songs. From Buffy Sainte-Marie's politically-driven anthems to Tanya Tagaq and the Halluci Nation's modern transformations of traditional sounds, Indigenous artists' music serves as both entertainment and public record. 

While it's important to continue reading about the history of Indigenous people in Canada, listening to the songs highlighted below may further one's understanding of the pain that's been inflicted on the original inhabitants of this land.

Each song below is accompanied by select lyrics to allow the artists' words speak for themselves.

'My Country 'tis of thy People You're Dying,' Buffy Sainte-Marie 

Now that the longhouses breed superstition
You force us to send our children away
To your schools where they're taught to despise their traditions
Forbid them their languages, then further say that
Canada's history really began
When explorers set sail out of Europe
And stress that the nations of leeches who conquered these lands
Were the biggest, and bravest, and boldest, and best.

'We Were Here,' Aysanabee

They say that we can reconcile this
Put it in the past
They say that we can reconcile this
What if I can't?

Reckoning EP, Melody McKiver 

Violist and composer Melody McKiver's 2017 EP Reckoning was originally commissioned by Indigenous theatre company Article 11 for Tara Beagan's play of the same name. Beagan's Reckoning was written in response to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports as well as the Common Experience Payment, which was introduced in 2006 and ended in 2011. 

'Open Window,' nêhiyawak

There was a scoop that went on where people
Were forced to live another way of life
And I always wondered what had happened 
To those mother tongues that were all kept inside.

How did you deal with no appeal?
Just an open window.

'How I Feel,' the Halluci Nation feat. Northern Voice, Shad and Leonard Sumner

Well, it's the type of heartbreak that takes more than tears and time to
Stitch up any wounds and heal the scars they leave behind
Separation from the fam, segregation on the land
It was all part of the plan and the blood is on your hands
It's all divide and conquer
Colonize and slaughter
Stabbing at the heart through the backs of our grandfathers
Now we see our daughters that are disappearing quickly
Say it's through the cracks while ignoring all the history
Governments be scooping babies way before the '60s
When you legalize abduction, you legalize the misery.

'Child of the Government,' Jayli Wolf 

Father Youngblood took the children down
To the water with the cross and the Bible
They were taught to pray
But they left their hands up high.

'Tongues,' Tanya Tagaq

They took our tongues
They tried to take our tongues
We lost our language
And we didn't

Inuuvunga (I am human, I am Inuk)
We didn't

Inuuvunga (I am human, I am Inuk).

'500 Years,' Rhonda Head 

500 years ago
Across the sea they came
Invaded our land, took away our home
Mother shared a story 
Cut hair and braid
Punished child for speaking Cree
Why were they so mean?
Tell me how, tell me now 
How do I stop the hurting
The haunting and the pain.

'He can Fancy Dance,' Cindy Paul 

Robbed of his spirit and his pride
He was told his people were undignified 
He could not speak the language of his land 
How could a man like that survive.

'Cut my Hair,' Digging Roots 

When they cut my hair 
Said they trying to cut down my roots 
When they cut my hair 
Said they trying to cut down my roots 
Well you can cut down a tree
But there's Mishkiki, there's still Mishkiki 
There's still medicine at the roots.

'Take me Home,' Indian City

Out here in the schoolyard all alone
Looking out beyond the fence
I want to go home
I miss my brother and my friends
Take me home again.

'Why Us,' N'we Jinan Artists

They took our land, but not our traditions and culture
There is a struggle, but it's making us stronger
Do you see who we are?
Their spirit in our hearts
The future seems so far
But our time is now, we sing, "Why us."

'Cut Your Hair,' Status/Non-Status

You were only little children
Made afraid to speak your languages
And if the kids went home for Christmas
They'd cut your hair down now
Cut your hair down now.

'Lost Souls,' Tom Jackson

You broke my heart.
Now you want my soul.
It breaks my heart. Where do lost souls go?
Where do 215 lost souls go.

'Warrior Heart,' Shawnee Kish

Young blood
Are you all right?
I know that cry'oh
Your wicked scars
They break your heart
Broken down, and beat, and tired
When breathing's hard
Silently screaming
You've earned your stars
Through wounded pain
Another scar
That keeps the fighter
A warrior heart
Just one more day.

'It is Ours,' Darryl Dozlaw 

See, no one scooped me from my home
No one took my hope away
No one sought to civilize me from my people's ancient ways
No one broke my spirit with violence
No one silenced me with fear of a coming retribution should I whisper in someone's ear.
No one entrusted me to the underfunded and under qualified
No one threatened my dear parents if they listened when I cried
No one dragged me back to some hell when I made it into town
No one whipped me when I tried to burn that —
I tried to burn that madhouse down!

But this is not my story, it is ours.
This is not my story but it is ours.

Wawasint8da, Mali Obomsawin


  • An earlier version of this blog post included information about the work of musician Mali Obomsawin, who has clarified that it was not accurate. We regret the error and apologize for the mistake.
    Oct 28, 2022 3:23 PM ET