N.W.T. group holds ceremony to honour people who died at residential school

Stephen Kakfwi remembers how terrifying and lonely residential school was. So when he learned members of his family are buried at the former Sacred Heart Mission school, he made it a point to start visiting them.

Stephen Kakfwi started visiting his relatives who died at Sacred Heart Mission school 10 years ago

The ceremony attendees fed the fire with berries and dry meat from their home communities in Fort Providence, N.W.T., on Thursday. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Stephen Kakfwi has a message for the hundreds of children who died while attending residential school in Fort Providence, N.W.T.

He travelled to the community with family Thursday to say, "We want to remember all of you." 

Kakfwi, who is originally from Fort Good Hope, went to residential school himself when he was nine years old. He remembers how terrifying and lonely it was to be separated from his parents.

So when he learned about 10 years ago that three members of his family were sent to Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence in the 1800s, and died there of illness, he made it a point to start visiting the cemetery.

The former N.W.T. premier has expanded those visits into a pilot project to allow more people with family at Sacred Heart get the chance to visit. This year, he headed down with family from Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake and Norman Wells to hold a ceremony for the children. 

Former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi, seen here in a file photo, started visiting family buried in Fort Providence about 10 years ago. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Deh Gah Got'ie Chief Xavier Canadien took part, along with elders from the community, Northwest Territories Commissioner Margaret Thom, and other government officials. 

There was a drum ceremony and the community hosted a meal. Kakfwi and his family also fed the fire berries and dry meat from their home communities as well.

A monument names about 161 children who died at the community's school, and many others buried in unmarked graves at the site. 

"We are trying to comfort them," he said. 

"Nobody has spoken their names for over 150 years and we're just starting to do that. So we will say their names out loud today."

The ceremony is falling on the same week as Orange Shirt Day — a day to honour Indigenous children who were sent away to residential schools, and to learn more about the history of those schools.

This monument names about 300 people who died at Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence, N.W.T. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Documenting the visit

"This event meant a great deal to me. I'm just so happy to come to something like this," said Cathy Pope, Kakfwi's sister, at the event.

She said she was a little emotional Thursday, but also said she was relieved that the kids buried know they aren't forgotten.

Elders were on hand to provide support to those taking part in the ceremony; Kakfwi expected it to be an emotional experience. 

"There's probably a lot of feelings that are going to surface today and we'll try to be prepared for it," he said. 

"There's no way to make it upbeat. All we can say is we're happy to finally connect with you." 

A drummer performs at a ceremony to commemorate children who died at Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Kakfwi says he proposed his pilot project to the National Research Council in Winnipeg as well as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in Yellowknife.

He has offered to document the visits, so other communities who might get the same idea can use it as a prototype to follow. 

Kakfwi is hoping to make the visits an annual event, with more members from his community joining in. He says he recognizes other family names from Fort Good Hope on a monument erected at the Sacred Heart school cemetery dedicated to children who died there. 

"The children will know they are finally getting some recognition."

The event included a prayer song and a feeding of the fire ceremony. (Emily Blake/CBC)


  • An earlier version of this story said 300 children are named on the monument. In fact, 300 people are named, of which 161 are children.
    Jul 02, 2021 5:23 PM CT

Written by Randi Beers, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis