Gone, but not Forgotten

Last week was a very tough week for Canada. On the back of discovering 215 student’s bodies on the former Indigenous Residential School property in Kamloops, British Columbia, there was a suspected terrorist mass killing of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.

The breaking news of the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops is both tragic and educational to say the least. Unfortunately, while the residential school history is a surprise to many Canadians, it is not a surprise to Indigenous communities and many people of Indigenous heritage.

Last week, I had the opportunity to get back to my own community and visit with our Chief and some of my community members. Near our reserve at Fox Lake, and my hometown of Chapleau, Ontario, the St. John Indian Residential School operated from 1907 to 1948. The school is long gone, but there remains a school cemetery with around 20 marked graves.

Entrance to St. John’s Residential School Graveyard near Chapleau, Ontario

While visiting with my community, Chief Corston told a story that I hadn’t heard before. Around 10 years ago, the Chapleau First Nations were restoring the graveyard with funding provided by the government. To ensure that they had cleaned up and fenced in the complete area, they requested to bring in the forensics unit of a government agency to use special equipment to survey the site to determine if more students were buried there. This was all arranged, but at the last minute, it was cancelled, and the agency could not comment on why.

Restored gravesites at St. John’s Residential School Graveyard

We are still unsure how many people are buried there; maybe it is only the ones marked, but we will not be sure until we survey the site. We can now look to be part of an investigation recently pledged by the Canadian government to identify all those who died and were buried throughout the residential school operations in Canada.

Some of the Chapleau area First Nation children that were taken to residential schools were placed outside of the region. In the letter below, my Great Grandfather, Isiah Sailors, is writing the Indian Agent to ask for the return of his two boys who had been taken to Shingwauk Home, a residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, that operated from 1875 to 1970.

Isiah Sailors writes to have his children returned from Shingwauk Home, Sault Ste. Marie

For me, a father of three, this letter provides a much more concrete understanding of the impact that the residential school initiative had on Indigenous families in Canada. Thankfully, Isiah’s sons did return eventually; I can’t imagine what it would be like if one or more of your children died while away at school, or worse, went missing and you where unaware of what became of them.

Unfortunately, we only have to look to London, Ontario, and the disturbing news coming out of that community, to remind ourselves that there exists both old and new hatred and racism throughout our otherwise wonderful country. My hope is that the attention brought to both past cultural genocide practices and current intolerance to minorities and other cultures during the last few weeks will bring about lasting change. However, forgive me for tempering my hope based on our experience. We have been here before, many times; we have a strong tendency to disregard our teachings regardless of how powerful they are.

Brian Ritchie is a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation and the Founder and CEO of kama.ai, an Indigenous company that develops and markets the Designed Emotional Intelligence® platform kama DEI.

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Brian is a seasoned business developer, a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation and a die-hard entrepreneur currently managing his second software company.

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Brian Ritchie

Brian Ritchie

Brian is a seasoned business developer, a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation and a die-hard entrepreneur currently managing his second software company.

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