Residential school pain eased by teen's funeral

Charlie Hunter, 13, died while attending a residential school 40 years ago. The Hunters' decades-long struggle to transport the boy's body hundreds of kilometres home has finally ended.

Hundreds of other families hoping for the return of lost children

(Photo credit: Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

A long-awaited funeral held earlier this year shows that ordinary Canadians can help to heal the wounds from residential schools. 

The funeral was for Charlie Hunter, a teenager who died nearly 40 years ago while attending residential school. He was buried in Moose Factory, hundreds of kilometres away from his home and family in Peawanuk, Ont. For decades his parents pressed the federal government to bring Charlie's body home, but nothing happened.

Finally, Charlie's youngest sister, Joyce Hunter, went public with her desire to hold a proper funeral for the brother who died before she was born. She said it was an important gift for her aging father.

"We felt that we needed to give him something that he's been mourning over for years and years," Hunter said. "This unfinished business, looking south, knowing that his child is very far away and that he just can't be with him."

A Facebook page was created and the National Residential School Survivors Association began collecting the thousands of dollars in donations needed to transport Charlie's body to Peawanuk and pay for the funeral. On Aug. 17, the family and most of the small community gathered in Peawanuk's tipi-shaped church to say goodbye.

At Charlie's graveside, Joyce Hunter talked about the healing the event brought to her family and thanked the people who made it possible. She said it shows that Canadians would no longer condone a racist policy like the residential school system.

"It feels good to know that people are changing and that it's OK to speak a different language and have a different skin colour. It's a beautiful thing and we're very, very grateful for that."

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimates at least a thousand other families are in the same situation as the Hunters, longing to reunite with children lost to the residential school system.

But the survivors association worries it's not the focus of the TRC's efforts. Mike Cachagee is the executive director of the non-profit group, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He says the TRC has put the issue of missing children in a silo as a research project.

"There are lasting hurts and emotional injuries that have to be addressed such as we have seen and witnessed with the "Bring Charlie Hunter Home" campaign," Cachagee said. "Greater efforts have to be extended to those who have suffered the emotional injuries of having their child or relative pass away and never really be given the opportunity to find closure."

The NDP's Charlie Angus attended Charlie's funeral as the MP for the area. He said the government's failure to help the Hunter family shows the Conservatives don't understand the universal desire to ease the pain caused by residential schools.

"Canadians want to be reconciled. They don't know the full extent of what's been done to these communities but they want some kind of healing. So a story like Charlie Hunter helps people to say maybe I can participate in a small way and maybe we can move on."