WARNING: This story contains details and images some readers may find distressing.
As demands grow louder for information about the full scope of children’s deaths at residential schools, one community in the Northwest Territories is reflecting on its own work to piece together some of that history.
Albert Lafferty said people in Fort Providence, N.W.T., talked about the unmarked graves near the site of the former Sacred Heart residential school for years. The school was open between 1868 and 1929.
Lafferty’s own Dene relatives are buried there.
In the early 1990s, Lafferty led a push to ensure the old burial ground would never be developed.
“As a young boy growing up here, I would hear the older generation, the elders, aunts, uncles, parents would sometimes make reference to that, and … that’s what sparked my interest,” Lafferty said.
He worked with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie–Fort Smith in Yellowknife to research who was buried there.
They brought in ground penetrating equipment to search for remains, and confirmed what the community had already known. In 1948, the church ploughed over the burial ground, but not before exhuming the bodies of eight missionaries and moving them to the community’s current cemetery while leaving others behind.
Lafferty said the church then turned the site into a potato field.
The efforts of Lafferty and others paid off, and a monument was installed to honour the people buried at the Fort Providence grave site.
It pays tribute to about 300 people who were buried there, including about 161 Indigenous children who were brought to the school from up and down the Mackenzie River Valley, and who never returned home. One child listed was just days old.
‘More work to be done’
Lafferty said the monument might offer a sense of closure.
“There’s still a lot more work to be done for survivors and descendants and future generations, so we have a better understanding of what took place in Canadian history,” Lafferty said.
Sam Gargan, a former grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations, also went to the residential school.
“So this whole field was a garden … and this whole area was where potatoes were planted here along the banks,” he said.
“We never knew that there were people buried here. We heard of it, but it was never documented till, I guess Lafferty did a project to track down the names of those recorded.”
He believes even more students are buried at the site than those named on the monument.
“It might have been 500.”
Monument doesn’t offer complete closure
Gargan said the monument is only a start, and he does not consider it closure.
“In order for our people of my generation and even our children’s generation to heal, and that process to begin, you have to hear an apology from the church and from the RCMP,” Gargan said.
An apology was made by Bishop Jon Hansen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Roman Catholic Diocese in Yellowknife, but it’s unclear if that apology has been accepted by the people of the N.W.T. Many want the Pope to apologize.
Indigenous leaders from the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami are planning to travel to Rome to ask for that in person.
But for Cathy Pope from Norman Wells, who travelled to the Fort Providence grave site in 2018 to honour the people buried there, including three of her relatives, the monument has been an important part of her healing journey.
“I never ever used that word ‘closure,’ so you know, it gave me peace of mind,” Pope said.
She plans to make the trip back to Fort Providence, “so they feel they’re not forgotten,” she said.
“They have no actual grave, but the monument says it all.”
WATCH | How a residential school monument helped bring some closure to N.W.T. community:
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
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.
The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason.
In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.