Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

I was naive about my country. Here's how the horrors of residential schools are changing me

Catherine Payne did not know anything about residential schools until a class in high school. As revelations mount about the country's grim history, she is reconsidering her thoughts about Canada.

As revelations mount about residential schools, I feel compelled to act — and demand justice

Catherine Payne was shaken to learn about residential schools as a teenager, and has been reconsidering her thinking on the country. (Submitted by Catherine Payne )

This First Person column is by Catherine Payne, a Memorial University student living in Gander. 

My heart sank to my stomach as tears glazed my eyes, trying desperately to break through the surface.

I searched my mind for what to feel in response to this devastating news, and I found fear, guilt, anger, disappointment and an aching heart, all intertwined into a chaotic blend of emotions.

Two years ago, this is what coursed through 16-year-old me as I learned about Canadian residential schools.

I grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, in a typical Canadian household — oblivious to the past actions of our country and naively thinking that Canada had always been a place accepting of all people. I knew that my father's side of the family is Indigenous, and I had always wanted to learn more about my Indigenous history, but I had no idea that what I would discover would haunt me for the rest of my life.

My day started off like any other day in the 11th grade. I was dropped off to school, went to my first morning classes, ate lunch with my friends, and went to my last classes of the school day. I strode into my world religions class with my textbook in hand, eager to be going back home after this last hour of learning.

As the teacher began the lesson by discussing Catholicism, I thought nothing of it, and grabbed my notebook from my bag.

She turned off the lights and powered on the smart board to present a slideshow entitled "Residential Schools." The picture shown directly underneath the title looked to be quite old. It was a black and white picture of a group of young Indigenous children huddled together outside an old, rundown building. Confused, I waited patiently for an explanation on how this picture was related to a class about religion.

Stunned silence

She proceeded to the next slide with an explanation of what exactly a residential school was: a boarding school for Indigenous children, meant to "whitewash" them into Canadian culture.

I sat at my desk, stunned into silence. How could I have had no idea schools like these existed until now?

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., has been in the international news since late May. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

The teacher continued her lesson and discussed the mental and physical torture endured by these innocent children. She explained how the church (and others) had started these schools and controlled them supposedly as a way to help these children, when in reality they were tearing them from their homes and scarring their memories with pure hatred.

She then went on to say that there have been more than 6,000 recorded deaths from these schools due to disease, malnutrition, physical abuse and many other horrific reasons.

So many emotions, the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this column, flooded through me. I had never been so ashamed to be a Canadian.

This is far from over

These feelings were amplified in late May, when I learned that 215 unmarked graves had been found on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. To know that hundreds of innocent children were buried as if they were mere bones was heart-wrenchingly devastating.

More discoveries have been made, and I have found my heart shattered a little more every time. Now, knowing that thousands of children died at these schools, I am bracing myself for what is coming, because the numbers do not stop here.

People pay their respects at a memorial in Vancouver after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported that ground-penetrating radar scans of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School revealed the remains of 215 children. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As we continue to search for the missing victims of these horrendous schools, we must remember that this is far from over. Once all the bodies have been accounted for, the numbers will quite possibly be higher than anyone has imagined. This is not something that can be repaired, nor should it be forgotten.

As a young Indigenous person full of ambition and passion, I want to help speak for those who couldn't. For those stolen children who would have grown up to be doctors, lawyers, writers, teachers or scientists, my generation will pursue our dreams because they couldn't.

For the suffering and torture that countless families endured because of their child being stripped from them, we will demand justice. For all of the Indigenous people who could not embrace their culture and were forced to assimilate to white culture, we will not rest until their voices are heard.

Listen to their voices, their cries, and speak on behalf of those who could not.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Catherine Payne


Catherine Payne is a second year student at Memorial University. She is currently living in Gander.

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