Sask. First Nation lays moccasins at residential school site to honour children who died there

Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday morning for a prayer vigil at the last fully intact residential school building still standing in Saskatchewan — a place where Indigenous culture and spirituality were once forbidden.

35 unmarked graves found at the site since it closed in 1990s

A group of women joins hands during a prayer vigil on the grounds of the former Muskowekwan Indian Residential School. (Mickey Djuric/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing

Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday morning for a prayer vigil and to place pairs of moccasins on the steps of the last fully intact residential school building in Saskatchewan — a place where Indigenous regalia and spirituality were once forbidden.

The vigil honoured children who died while being forced to attend residential schools. It came after last week's announcement by British Columbia's Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of an unmarked burial site at the Kamloops Indian Residential School believed to contain the remains of 215 children.

"I want to pay tribute to all the mothers, and the grandmothers, and to the great-grandmothers whose children never came home, whose children were taken from their arms, from their homes, from their families, from their communities," said Val Desjarlais, health director for Touchwood Agency Tribal Council, while holding back tears.

The vigil took place about 150 kilometres northeast of Regina on the grounds of the former Muskowekwan Indian Residential School, which opened in 1889 and closed in 1997. It was one of the last residential schools to close in Canada.

"This is one of the tough days for all, because we've all been affected by colonization and the implementation of these schools," said Cynthia Desjarlais, a council member and former student of the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School.

"Our people, our ancestors did not have the support or the protection to prevent this from happening, and the most innocent ones of all have borne the brunt of these horrific acts of violence inflicted on them when they were dragged from their homes."

Attendees embrace each other during a prayer vigil on the Muskowekwan First Nation on Tuesday. (Mickey Djuric/CBC)

The Universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta assisted Muskowekwan First Nation in 2018 and 2019 with ground penetrating radar to find unmarked and unidentified graves of children who died at the school.

At least 35 unmarked graves have been confirmed at the site since the 1990s, according to the First Nation. It expects more will be found.

"My mushum told me the only way we'll heal is when the truth is told in Turtle Island. Not only Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous people alike need to know the truth and the history of this land," said Holly Geddes, a Muskowekwan councillor. 

'This community needs healing'

James Desjarlais was forced to attend the school at six years old, despite his family home being about 90 metres from the school site.

"It was very hard because I didn't understand why I was being put into the school," he said.

At around 10 or 11 years old he became an altar boy. 

"We used to serve mass. We used to pray, sing in Latin. But I didn't know what I was saying."

Students were forced to learn English and adopt Roman Catholic customs. They were often punished if they practiced their Indigenous culture or spoke an Indigenous language.

Desjarlais said not all of the priests and nuns at the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School were abusive, but "they had some pretty tough ones there."

"I [saw] a lot of atrocities that happened in the school," he said. "I had friends come to the school. They were little... and they didn't know any English.

"That's all they knew was their own language, and every time they spoke, they got punished for it."

He said students were also slapped or hit with a strap or ruler if they didn't know the answer to a question during class.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron addresses the crowd during a prayer vigil honouring children who died while forced to attend residential schools. (Mickey Djuric/CBC)

His brother Roland also attended the school starting at the age of seven.

Roland said he played a lot of sports, which he enjoyed, but that there was a lot of abuse at the school.

He said students were often punished even if they did nothing wrong — sometimes being hit with a strap that was almost a metre long.

"I would have huge marks on my rear end. They'd take your pants right off and they just wound right up, and not just once, several times over," he said.

Students — who were all children or young teenagers — were also humiliated for wetting the bed, he said.

"When you become traumatized you can't control your own body," he said. "So we were punished for that."

Roland said they would be forced to parade into the cafeteria during breakfast and hold their sheets on display while being ridiculed.

Thankfully, Roland found refuge in competitive sports.

"I think that's what really carried many of us," said the 71-year-old.

James, meanwhile, said being able to talk about these traumatic experiences while having support from the community and leaders help him heal.

"This community needs healing," he said.

Construction is currently underway on the Muskowekwan Family and Healing Wellness Center, which is aimed at bringing together families and community members torn apart for decades because of the residential school system.

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

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 Mickey Djuric