My Long Overdue Education about Canadian Residential Schools – The New York Times

An Indigenous boy raped by a priest and forced by another to scrub away the brown from his knuckles until they bled.

These images haunted me this week as I reported on the discovery in Saskatchewan of the remains of as many as 751 people, many of them children, on the verdant lands of an Indigenous group.

[Read: Hundreds More Unmarked Graves Found at Former Residential School in Canada]

The boy is Solomon Wawatay, now 63, a survivor of a residential school in Quebec and the father of Cezin Nottaway, a charismatic chef who gave me my long overdue Indigenous education.

Like the children whose remains were discovered this week, Mr. Wawatay was among the 150,000 Indigenous children who passed through one of the church-run schools between 1883 and 1996. Many later said they were sexually, emotionally and physically abused, and barred from speaking their languages. Others vanished, their parents left to ponder their fates.

[Read: How Thousands of Indigenous Children Vanished in Canada]

The Saskatchewan discovery — just weeks after a similar finding of unmarked graves in British Columbia — was a chilling reminder of Canada’s longstanding mistreatment of Indigenous people. It also recalled our country’s historical amnesia when it comes to taking responsibility for Indigenous suffering.

When I was growing up in Montreal in the 1980s, my first encounter with Indigenous people came in my high school history text book where we learned how 17th-century French settlers in what is now Quebec encountered fierce resistance from the Iroquois nation, who were portrayed as barbaric warriors.

While I went on to study history at university and learned about the perils of minority voices being silenced, it was only after I returned to Canada about four years ago that I had a vital, belated history lesson when reporting a profile of Ms. Nottaway, an Indigenous chef. She told me about how she had turned to her grandmothers’ moose meat and rabbit recipes for healing and cultural affirmation.

[Read: In Canada, Hunting and Preserving an Indigenous Way of Life]

In January 2018, over a moose-hunting expedition on the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Quebec, about 85 miles north of Ottawa, Ms. Nottaway had also explained to me how both her parents had been sent to residential schools, a trauma that still reverberated in her family.

On Friday, still shaken by the Saskatchewan story, I called her and her father, Solomon Wawatay, and asked them how the week’s events had affected them. Mr. Wawatay told me that the discovery had stirred difficult memories.

In the 1960s, he had been removed from his parents at the age of 6 and sent to a residential school in Amos, in northwestern Quebec. There, at the age of 8, he said, he was raped by a priest in his 30s. “I was only a child. I kept it hidden because I didn’t want to be made fun of,” he told me, sobbing. “He was never prosecuted or faced punishment.”

He also recalled an incident when another priest had forced him to scrub his knuckles until they bled, recalling that he had said, “Get that dirty color off your hand, you dirty Indian!” Mr. Wawatay said he was also beaten.

At the school, Mr. Wawatay said he and other Indigenous children weren’t allowed to speak their native Algonquin language. So they would sneak away to the forest to snare rabbits and speak Algonquin among themselves, away from the prying eyes of the priests.

He finally left the school at 13, but Mr. Wawatay said his experiences there remained with him and other survivors, some of whom used alcohol to try to numb the pain. He said the parents of children who had been taken away were also deeply traumatized.

Mr. Wawatay said: “Some parents drank because their kids were gone. Many had feared that if they didn’t send their kids to the schools, they would be arrested. As a result of the residential schools, we had social problems like malnutrition, dirty diapers, alcoholism.”

Ms. Nottaway recalled that her mother, Suzanne Nottaway, had scars on her body from repeated whippings at a residential school. She was so emotionally shaken when the younger Ms. Nottaway was growing up that she struggled to say, “I love you.” Her father, she added, had turned to alcohol and became indescribably sad.

“We are responsible to help our parents by carrying the pain that they endured,” she told me. “This is not the past. As this week reminded us, the repercussions are still happening.”

Today Suzanne Nottaway works in a prison where she teaches inmates about Indigenous culture, while Mr. Wawatay is a leader of his community.

Credit…Cezin Nottaway

For Mr. Wawatay, healing gradually began in his 40s, he told me, after an elder told him to let go of the pain and draw strength from the traditions of his ancestors. It is a lesson he has passed on to his children and grandchildren.

“All my high school years, I walked on eggs until my elders taught me that this is my land, this is our way of life, and I began to defend myself that way,” he recalled. “It takes strength to forgive and I did it before, but this week brought back a lot of anger,” he added.

He told me he hoped the latest revelations would be a catalyst for expanding Indigenous rights, including gaining autonomy over their lands. On his people’s land, he said, white hunters routinely trespassed during moose-hunting season, forcing the community to set up road blocks.

Ms. Nottaway added her hope that news of the graves would shake Canada out of its historical complacency, and prod a new national reckoning about the past.

“In the past they took our voices away,” she told me. “But now Canada can no longer hide from it. Are you going to deny the bones of children?”


  • On Thursday, my colleague Ian Austen and I wrote on the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves in Saskatchewan, which has prompted national soul-searching.

  • The police were investigating this week after two churches in British Columbia were burned to the ground on Indigenous land. One line of inquiry is whether the fires were arson.

  • Last week, I chronicled my feelings of isolation while staying in a quarantine hotel at Toronto’s airport. Canada will lift the hotel quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated Canadians on July 5 at 11:59 p.m. But joy may be muted since only 13 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Canadian government.

  • Last weekend, I reported on the arrest of a Black teenager in Montreal that, for some, conjured memories of George Floyd.

  • The Biden administration urged a court to throw out a challenge brought by tribal and environmental groups to a pipeline that would carry Canadian oil across Minnesota and Wisconsin.


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