A heartrending discovery in British Columbia brings the legacy of the Shubenacadie Residential School into focus, adding new urgency to an investigation of the site

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his story about the residential school system contains details that readers might find disturbing. A helpline has been set up for anyone experiencing distress or triggering effects from the revelations in Kamloops. The number for the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

Mi’kmaq elder Dorene Bernard says the healing in the Indigenous community after the horrific discovery of 215 children in mass graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. could have started years ago, if Canadians believed the stories of countless survivors.

Bernard, her siblings, her parents, her aunts and uncles, and her grandmother’s family were forced to attend Shubenacadie Indian Residential School north of Halifax, part of the federal government’s nationwide attempt to assimilate the Indigenous population. As a social worker and activist, she has been listening to the stories of atrocities from school survivors for almost two decades. (Read this firsthand account by Shubenacadie survivor Bernadette Eisenhower, originally published in Halifax Magazine in January 2019.)

“How can you heal when you know things, when you witness things, and nothing has been done about it?” Bernard says.

The glare the mass grave has attracted at home and internationally comes six years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the extensive probe into Canada’s residential school system, issued a final report that devoted 273 pages to missing children and unmarked burials.

Dorene Bernard. Photo: Submitted

“They’re finally doing something about it,” says Bernard. “But we’re taking about 20 years, 30 years, a long time in our history, that people have come forward and nothing was done. Because they were children, they weren’t believed. Even as adults when people came forward to try to have something done about the abuse they suffered, they weren’t believed.”

Under her guidance, research began a few years ago to locate similar unmarked burials at the former Shubenacadie school, the only residential school in Atlantic Canada. Using the same ground-penetrating radar that located the remains in Kamloops, preliminary scanning was conducted in April and December of 2020, including the perimeter of a plastics factory that now stands on the site of the former school. The research didn’t find any graves.

The scanning will resume this weekend in partnership with Saint Mary’s University’s anthropology department. Associate professor Jonathan Fowler, a leading researcher in archaeological geophysics and remote sensing, is conducting the search with Mi’kmaq cultural heritage curator Roger Lewis.

The earlier searches were kept quiet, out of respect, Bernard says, but disclosed after the discovery in Kamloops was revealed.

“We are going on a lot of information from the survivors,” she says. “The possibility of finding grave sites is quite high. The process is slow, I guess because a lot of the survivors are elders. Our oldest survivor is 93. Our youngest is probably 60. They’re seniors and many are not in good health. It was urgent we moved on these things as soon as possible.”

The school is one of more than 130 government-funded, church-run residential schools across the country. The first opened more than 150 years ago and the last closed in 1996. The Shubenacadie school operated from 1930 to 1967.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to provide funding to help uncover more burial sites.

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recalled this week being shocked at the stories he was hearing about children who died at the schools, or suddenly went missing, or had babies fathered by priests who were thrown into furnaces. At the time, he asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for more funding to investigate. The request was denied.

“So largely we did what we could, but it was not anywhere near what we needed to investigate,” he says in a statement. “Now we are seeing evidence of the large number of children who died.”

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell. Photo: Submitted

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, Native studies instructor at Dalhousie University, says the discovery and likelihood of more unmarked graves being uncovered calls for a criminal investigation.

“Whether children came out of there alive or not, the whole system was set up to get rid of ‘the Indian problem’ and treat these kids as less-than human,” says the Mi’kmaq lawyer and writer. “This is certainly crimes against humanity. The federal government and the Catholic church need to take responsibility.” 

The failure to act sooner highlights the racism still prevalent in Canada’s government and justice system.

“There’s an idea that people have that we were pagan savages, that we didn’t do anything with the land, that we were just uncivilized and heathens,” Doyle-Bedwell says. “That idea has been embedded in Canadian law and Canadian government ideas about who we are and that has to change.”

The decades of atrocities that are the legacy of residential schools finally appear to be registering with a galvanizing effect not unlike the brutal death of Black American George Floyd had on the Black Lives Matter movement.  

“I’m hearing from a lot of people who are not indigenous who are just totally upsent and outraged,” says Doyle-Bedwell. “Even though there’s been lots of reports over the years and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these 215 kids have really broken the hearts of many, many people.”

Premier Iain Rankin says the province will continue to help in the surveying effort.

“Whatever we’re able to provide in terms of support, we’ll do that, and we’ll continue to have discussions,” he says in response to a question from Halifax Magazine in a recent press conference. “I also called Premier Horgan in British Columbia to learn how that was funded and see if there’s anything we can emulate over here to ensure that we’re continuing on the journey of reconciliation.”

Premier Iain Rankin. Photo: Communications NS

The premier acknowledges Nova Scotia’s own issues with anti-Indigenous racism as First Nations fishers leave their boats tied up out of fear of a repeat of last year’s attacks by non-Indigenous licensed fishers.

“I expect all Nova Scotians to be treated with respect and safety needs to be maintained at our wharves across all the whole province,” he says.

The province has an obligation to uphold public safety, he says. “That’s what we’ll continue to do throughout the year. Obviously, there’s some challenges with the definition of moderate livelihood that the federal government is working through.”

Bernard recalls having a ceremonial smudge bowl knocked from her hands by a 77-year old non-Indigenous fisherman last year in Southwestern Nova Scotia as she prayed to bring calm.

“That’s how explosive it was at the time,” she says. “I told him, ‘I don’t blame you because I don’t believe you were taught anything in school about residential schools or our treaties or the Mi’kmaq people.’ That’s what needs to change. Racism is very deep … Those are impacts from the residential school. It’s ignorance handed down.”

The discovery of the mass grave is opening the eyes of many people who were unable or unwilling to believe the dark history.

“When I pray, I ask for the help from our ancestors, our spirts, those that went before us. Sometimes you don’t know where that help is going to come from or in what form,” says Bernard. “When something like this happens, you feel like those children are helping us by being found …The children did not die in vain. They are helping us to continue what needs to happen for true reconciliation in Canada.” 

Parks Canada declared the location of the former Shubenacadie residential school a National Historic Site in September 2020.

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions permitting, organizers expect 150 to 200 members of the Indigenous community, including residential school survivors, to attend a commemorative ceremony in the fall.

“It’s very hard when people can’t get together,” says Bernard. “We heal better when we are all together supporting each other.”

Ideas are being developed with Indigenous artists for a memorial that will be presented to survivors for final approval.

“We want to get it right,” says Bernard. “We want to bring closure for the survivors’ families as well as educate people about residential schools. They don’t want people to forget. And they surely don’t want this to happen again.”

Halifax Magazine