Kahnawake residents create memorial for 215 children found buried at B.C. residential school site

In Kahnawake, residents placed 215 pairs of children's shoes on the steps of the Francis Xavier Mission Catholic Church on Sunday. 

Memorials popping up across the country following shocking discovery

Children's shoes were placed in front of a church in Kahnawake, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

First Nations and Indigenous communities across the country have been paying tribute to the 215 children whose remains were found in an unmarked burial site at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., this week. 

In Kahnawake, a reserve just south of Montreal, residents placed 215 pairs of children's shoes on the steps of the Francis Xavier Mission Catholic Church this weekend.

​​Jessica Oesterreich, a radio host with Kahnawake's K103.7, helped organize the memorial after she saw a similar tribute outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.

She put a call out on social media for people to contribute shoes that would symbolize the lives lost.

"I have this feeling as an individual, wanting to acknowledge what happened to those children but being unable to really hold the Church accountable in a meaningful way," Oesterreich said in an interview on Sunday.

Jessica Oesterreich helped organize the memorial after seeing a similar one in Vancouver. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC)

She chose the location for the display in order to "remind the Church 'this is what happened, you are responsible for it on some level.'"

The Kamloops residential school operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility's operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963.

Oesterreich said that even though the remains were found on the West Coast, the legacy of the residential school system affects people across the country.

"Being able to grieve for those children that we know have been found — and the ones who are still gone and nobody knows what happened to them and where they are — is a step toward healing as a community and as First Nations people," she said.

The shoes symbolize the 215 lives lost, many of which are not documented. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC)

The remains were found using a ground-penetrating radar and work is underway by forensic experts to identify and repatriate the bodies.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told CBC the discovery confirms what community survivors have said for years — that many children went to the school and never returned.

Kakaionstha ​Deer, a residential school survivor who lives in Kahnawake, said that when she saw images of the shoe memorial in Vancouver, she was moved: "It just hit me right in my heart."

The 83-year-old was sent to a residential school in Ontario when she was six years old and lived there for three years.

"I have suffered every day of my life knowing that this has happened to me," said Deer.

WATCH | Kakaionstha Deer shares her story:

Kahnawake residential school survivor Kakaionstha Deer shares her story

3 years ago
Duration 2:48
WARNING: Some viewers may find the content distressing.

Deer said during her time at the school, it was not uncommon for children never to return to their families.

"We were not given good food to eat. A lot of girls got sick and died of tuberculosis and measles," she said.

Deer has shared her experience of neglect and sexual abuse with youth in the community to teach them about the history of the system.

She said that creating a visual memorial serves as a way to honour the dead.

​"We're mourning for them because nobody mourned for them," said Deer. "We honour them by remembering them."

Deer said shining a light on this discovery, and her own story, helps people to understand what really went on at these institutions.

"We're bringing it out in the open to let all of Canada know what happened to them."

Support available

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected.

People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Chloe Ranaldi