WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Robert Kakakaway starts every morning the same: with smudging and a prayer.
The survivor of Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan said it’s not so much about himself, but for First Nation families who could not hear their children’s cries for help.
“The fear they must have been going through their lives, knowing they were going to die. That the end was coming and there was nothing you could do about it,” Kakakaway said on CBC Saskatchewan’s Afternoon Edition, referring to the Indigenous children who were forced to go to residential schools.
On Thursday, Kakakaway followed the news as Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves near his former school, which operated from 1899 to 1997.
It’s believed not all of the graves are those of children, but that doesn’t ease the trauma for residential school survivors.
“I’ve smudged and prayed and cried. Some of those unmarked graves were probably relatives,” Kakakaway said.
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His daily routine is a way for him to return to his culture, which was once considered sinful by many in the churches that helped run the residential schools.
At age six, Kakakaway was taken from his community of White Bear First Nation, in southeastern Saskatchewan, and was forced to attend Marieval Residential School, where the Roman Catholic Church worked to culturally assimilate him and other Indigenous children.
Kakakaway, who documents his experience in his book Thou Shalt Not Be An Indian, said it was common for children to be assaulted daily.
“You’re going to get hit, you’re going to get punched, you’re going to get whatever,” Kakakaway said.
He recalls seeing a boy get strapped by the principal, a Catholic priest, for playing a game.
“He was strapped 15 times on one hand, and 15 times on the other hand. And that poor, poor kid’s hands were just red from being beaten by a grown man,” Kakakaway said.
Frank Badger, who was forced to go to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask., said violence was common. At six years old, his first physical punishment came via a logging chain, and later a two-by-four, followed by brooms, belts, straps.
“I feel lucky I got out alive,” Badger said.
Kakakaway and Badger weren’t the first in their families to be taken to residential schools. Their parents and grandparents were also forced to attend.
“We couldn’t use our language. We couldn’t practise our culture. We attended church six to seven days a week,” Badger said.
“I always used to use those brushes they used for scrubbing floors … on my eyes, trying to take some brown off. I wished I could be a little whiter.
“They truly had us believing that white people were smarter than we were, until I learned better.”
Call for all records linked to residential schools
The intergenerational trauma continues to linger, and the recent discovery of unmarked graves, like those at Marieval Residential School — the largest such discovery in Canada to date — brings more pain.
The healing journey isn’t linear, but those who survived residential schools find ways to ease the trauma.
For Kakakaway it’s smudging and praying, and taking it one day at a time. For Badger, it’s sharing his culture and Cree language with as many people as possible.
“The recognition of these unmarked graves represents a new chapter in our collective understanding of the devastating impacts of the residential school system,” Stephanie Scott, the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said in a statement.
“This is a legacy that continues to resonate through generations and impact communities across Turtle Island today.”
To help with the healing, the Winnipeg-based centre is calling for federal and provincial governments, medical institutions and Catholic entities to provide all their records relating to residential schools across Canada.
“This horrific truth can no longer be ignored. The least governments and churches must do now is to provide access to the necessary records to identify the locations of all the children and allow communities to honour them with the traditional ceremonies and protocols they were denied,” Scott said.
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Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.