Adoptees and the Residential School Crisis in Canada

It was a regular day, and we were running errands. I turned left at the light and onto the road that passes the old hospital site. The hospital has been demolished, and all that is left is a grassy field fenced in with chain link. Along that fence on that day, a small memorial had started and was growing. Orange t-shirts and teddy bears had been fastened to the fence. 

Emma looked on and asked what it was for. I swallowed. Our family and extended adoption family had recently been rocked by tragedy after tragedy—multiple deaths, a missing birth parent, and other painful events had my mind feeling heavy. Of course I’d read the news article about the 215 bodies of children, some as young as three years old, found by ground-penetrating radar in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school. I had not yet even begun to process what this meant for myself, our children, and our own community. 

I finally spoke: “Do you remember what a residential school is?” Emma shook her head. I swam through the images in my mind from watching Indian Horse—the effects of the movie have stuck with me for years. I have not yet made it through the audiobook. My emotions got too big, and I had to turn it off, now that I know how it ends. 

“A long time ago, and not so long ago at all, the government took First Nations kids away from their parents, and made them attend residential schools. They were treated badly there, not allowed to speak their own languages, and sometimes abused—that means their bodies were hurt really badly. Some kids died there. It was wrong, and it is very sad. People are putting up the orange shirts and teddies as a reminder of the kids who died at residential schools,” I finally said. “Do you remember the book Orange Shirt Day?” 

“Oooh….yeah” she replied. We drove in silence while she thought. 

“Mom….I’m Native,” she finally said. I affirmed her. Yes, she is. She knows this. She knows that she is Cree and Metis. “Mom….if you hadn’t gotten me….. [read, adopted me], would…..I have….gone to residential school?” 

The larger question she was asking loomed, but neither one of us gave it voice. 

“Emma, no. You would not have. When you were born in 2008, all of the residential schools were closed. Kids in foster care, and kids that need to be adopted, are not at risk of being sent to residential school. You were always safe,” I replied. She nodded. I reached across and held her hand; we smiled at each other, and in the silence, I knew we were both thinking.

Residential schools were created by the Canadian government in the 1880s. Some were run by churches, such as the Catholic, United, and Presbyterian denominations. In total, over 130 residential schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996.

In 1931, there were 80 residential schools operating in Canada. This was the most at any one time. The Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan closed in 1996. It was the last federally-funded residential school in Canada

The best description of the purpose of residential schools is given by Daniel Kennedy (Ochankuga’he). He described his experience at the Qu’Appelle (Lebret) residential school in his memoirs, published as Recollections of an Assiniboine Chief (1972):

In 1886, at the age of twelve years, I was lassoed, roped, and taken to the Government School at Lebret. Six months after I enrolled, I discovered to my chagrin that I had lost my name and an English name had been tagged on me in exchange… “When you were brought here [the school interpreter later told me], for purposes of enrolment, you were asked to give your name and when you did, the Principal remarked that there were no letters in the alphabet to spell this little heathen’s name and no civilized tongue could pronounce it.

“We are going to civilize him, so we will give him a ‘civilized name,’ and that was how you acquired this brand new whiteman’s name.” …In keeping with the promise to civilize the little pagan, they went to work and cut off my braids, which, incidentally, according to the Assiniboine traditional custom, was a token of mourning —the closer the relative, the closer the cut. After my haircut, I wondered in silence if my mother had died, as they had cut my hair close to the scalp. I looked in the mirror to see what I looked like. A Hallowe’en pumpkin stared back at me and that did it. If this was civilization, I didn’t want any part of it. I ran away from school, but I was captured and brought back. I made two more attempts, but with no better luck.

Realizing that there was no escape, I resigned myself to the task of learning the three Rs. …visualize for yourselves the difficulties encountered by an Indian boy who had never seen the inside of a house; who had lived in buffalo skin teepees in winter and summer; who grew up with a bow and arrow.

Sadly, children experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, disease, and poor living conditions. Many ran away, or attempted to run away. Some froze to death doing so or were beaten upon capture. When children did return to their families from residential school, they felt torn between worlds, and often like they didn’t belong in either. 

We are still feeling the effects today. Roots were molested and burned in an attempt to destroy a people group. Families were cut off and children were made to feel rejected and wrong simply for being born Indigenous. Today we see an overrepresentation of First Nations children in foster care (according to the Government of Canada, 52.2% of the children in foster care are Indigenous, but only account for 7.7% of the child population, according to census information) and within the prison system. The serious, long-term effects and generational trauma are crushing.

Casey Caines describes it well: “It’s easy to grieve for children. 215 beautiful babies who never got the chance to grow old. Hundreds of shoes all lined up in a row. It’s harder to grieve for the alcoholic. It’s harder to grieve for the drug addict. It’s harder to grieve for the parents who didn’t parent at all. It’s harder to grieve for the beggars and the thieves. But grieve we must. These are the babies of residential schools who grew up. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the babies who physically survived the schools, but sometimes only physically survived. We grieve today for the babies, but we must remember that some of these babies grew up—and we must grieve for the futures they lost as well. Let our grief for the children be a reminder that the adults were once children who needed us then—and while we can’t go back, we can move forward with greater understanding of the paths they walk.”

On May 28, 2021, news spread like fire over social media and the internet about the bodies of 215 children found using ground-penetrating radar near the city of Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation hired a private company. The deaths are unrecorded previously, meaning all these families had no closure. And there are more. Body counts are rolling in from other residential school grounds as radar is used in other locations. At the time of writing, over 1,000 bodies have been found, with many other locations yet to be searched.

On May 31st, I shared the following poem on Facebook, by Abigail Echo-Hawk:

When they buried the children

What they didn’t know

They were lovingly embraced

By the land

Held and cradled in a mother’s heart

The trees wept for them, with the wind

they sang mourning songs their mother’s 

didn’t know to sing

bending branches to touch the earth

around them. The Creator cried for them 

the tears falling like rain.

Mother Earth held them

until they could be found.

Now our voices sing the mourning songs.

with the trees. the wind. light sacred fire

ensure they are never forgotten as we sing

JUSTICE.

Have you checked in with your adoptee? Our world has undergone both incredibly cruel things as well as a revival to renew and attempt to restore. The Every Child Matters movement, in remembrance of the atrocities of the Canadian residential school system, may be weighing on your child’s mind. Children of adoption already are more likely to struggle with their identity; please ensure you are a safe place for your child to talk about hard things. 

If your child is adopted from a war-torn country, or from a background of trauma, media coverage of racism and genocide may deeply trouble them. It is up to us as adults to bridge the gap, to talk, to love, and to be open.

I watch my kids riding in the sun. Faces tilted to the sky as their hair flows out behind them, horses running up the road: it almost looks like slow motion to me. Innocent kids. Just kids. I watch them spin in circles, arms out, faces skyward once again. They don’t know. They can’t control. Children, always the innocent ones that fall victim to the evils in our world.

In our homeschool, we read about the residential schools every year through age-appropriate books (consider these for children: Orange Shirt Day, Fatty Legs, I am Not a Number, Sugar Falls, When We Were Alone. For adults, consider Indian Horse, Behind Closed Doors, and Broken Circle, among many others). It was shocking to me that my Emma did not remember what a residential school was, despite this. It has spurred me on to make sure we talk about this so that our kids are not blindsided or bombarded with emotion out of the blue, like Emma was that day we drove by the hospital. 

That day, the bigger question Emma was asking was, “If you hadn’t adopted me, would I be one of those dead children found under a residential school?” Although Emma is not old enough to have been at risk to be sent to residential school, the question still haunts me. An echo of cries of children lassoed to be taken away from all they know. She IS that child, not too long ago, and generations ago at the start of it. She IS Fatty Legs, she IS a girl who cries, “I AM NOT A NUMBER,” she IS affected by this past. Oh, my God. My precious child. My heart aches. For her family. For all the families. And for all the children of adoption who struggle with who they are and what they may have come out of generationally because of their race or ethnicity. 

I expect more bad news. I expect the body count to rise. I expect more disclosures of abuse and racism, as we learn how they systematically tried to eradicate the “Indian” out of these children. 

What can we do, as adoptive parents? We need to keep talking. We need to make sure the lines of communication are open. Adoptees of First Nations descent may face a personal crisis as the truth about residential schools continues to pour out. May we as adoptive parents be willing to weep, willing to listen, willing to be brave and strong for our children as they think about the impact on their ancestors, as well as themselves. May we be willing to consider the cost residential schools have exacted. 

I look into Emma’s eyes and I see echoes of children just like her: innocent, fun, full of life. I see echoes of children that didn’t make it home. I see echoes of children who endured what no child should. And I grieve the evils of the Canadian residential school system, and what it means for Canadian adoptees and children of the foster care system.

Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.