Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Residential Schools

Anne Spice is a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse, Yukon. She grew up on Treaty 7 territories, and currently lives in and between Lenapehoking (New York City) and Wet’suwet’en lands in so-called British Columbia.

And I am never going to know what actually happened…. What it caused in my family was silence.

Lee Spice, testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 

We are standing on the grounds of what once was Carcross Residential School (also known as Choutla Residential School). Here, concrete stairs that lead nowhere. There, a truck with the windows busted out. Beyond are some scattered buildings, sagging and decrepit. The site where the actual school stood is empty, save for trash and broken glass. There is heaviness here, and deep sadness. I have brought tobacco with me, but it doesn’t feel right to offer it to this ground. The space is empty, and not in a triumphant way. Not like a racist monument falling, not like a wall that divides being picked apart stone by stone. Empty like lungs after a desperate sigh. Empty like my hands. Empty like my mouth, with no words to offer into this space.

“So many little lives were destroyed here,” my mother speaks into the silence. One of those little lives belonged to her father, my grandfather. He died before I was born. He died of demons born in this school. He died without ever telling his story. Instead, he swallowed it, and it is this absence that troubles me as I try to find my own relationship to the process of truth and reconciliation. How to tell truths when the truth is not known? How to reconcile with the absent, with the dead? Peter LeBarge and the untold others who did not survive leave an aching space. Not a wound that can be healed but a phantom limb that is gone but still tingles with feeling. 

Calling attention to this absence is a disruption. It disrupts the narrative that calls upon survivors to catalyze national healing by drawing attention to those who did not survive. The margins — the unknown segments of history that escape the narrative of testimony — contain the Indigenous victims of residential school who did not survive to testify for themselves. These people’s experience reverberates through generations, but their lives and choices are not honoured by the language of intergenerational trauma. My grandfather’s absence triggers a painful imagination, but this is not the same as trauma. I wonder what happened in the school. Imagine if he hadn’t gone. I wonder if he’d have taught me how to hunt moose. Imagine if he’d learned Tlingit from my great-grandmother, and then taught it to me. I wonder if he’d be standing up against these pipelines, too. 

In my mother’s testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she speaks for those who are silent, now, who never got a chance to tell their story. She describes what she knows about her father’s experience at Carcross Residential School:

We heard nothing about his schooling. Nothing. Throughout his whole life.
My father was a kind and generous man, and he never raised a hand to us.
But he had demons that assaulted him for his whole — whole life

We watched our father — we watched our father be destroyed from the inside out.
And that was his sacrifice to us, so that we could have a “normal”— a normal life.

My mother’s testimony at the TRC does three things. First, she brings silence into relief by breaking it. Second, she reframes silence as both an enactment of suffering and an act of agency. By holding his experience and refusing to pass it along to his children, my grandfather was destroyed from the inside out. Crucially, my mother names this not as passive suffering but as an act of sacrifice. He contained the violence to ensure it was not transmitted to future generations. Silence is clearly not a simple or passive symptom of trauma, here. It is a powerful tool that both harms and contains. Third, my mother’s testimony illuminates the inability of the TRC to account for those who did not survive by powerfully evoking my grandfather’s presence, by telling his story even though we do not know exactly what happened. This story is about the generations of our family, and not only about his individual experience. It is a story that refuses to be individualized to one voice, to one identity. As an opening to talk about his experience across generations, this testimony overflows the bounds of the TRC discourse on national reconciliation. Instead, it has made it possible for us to turn to each other, within our family, to look for rage and healing and support. 

In late 2015, the TRC archives uploaded photographs and documents from residential schools across the country. I find the archive for Carcross, Yukon. There are photographs of buildings, mostly, some of children but not during the time my grandfather was there (1936-1940). I was hoping to find a picture of him (I don’t know why, but I thought I’d recognize him as a child). He is absent, here, haunting the subtext of the buildings and surrounding landscape. Later, when I visit the archives in Whitehorse, I find some pictures of students. One of them, we decide, could be him. It’s hard to tell, since we have no childhood photographs of him to compare to. I look through the documents on the Carcross school and find some written summaries of reports. “The school had a reputation for poor health, harsh discipline, poor food, and unpleasant living quarters. In the 1940s, the principal admitted to strapping students so severely that they had to be held down.” I send the link to my mother in an email.

Later, we compare what we found in the archives.

Lee: After you sent that email
And I found the part about the students being strapped and held down
I was a wreck
I came undone

As adults, knowing even a fraction of what may have happened in that school is enough to undo us. We know enough about this school, about the others, to assume that it was worse than we can imagine. It destroyed him. But he had demons that assaulted him for his whole — whole life. Now, decades later, a scrap of text in a report still has the capacity to harm.

His silence was a shield. My mother grew up without knowing, and his knowing but not-telling was an act of love. We draw strength from my grandfather’s silence, and refuse to be tragic. 

Later, after our discussion about the archives, I talk to my mother about my struggle to voice the effects of residential school on our family. I tell her my theories about silence as action, as agency, as sacrifice, as loving containment.

Anne: Did your father really never talk about residential school?
Lee: I think
He said something about chopping wood
In the mornings
My brother said that
He remembers him 
Talking about chopping wood

Standing in the site of Carcross Residential School, I try to imagine all the little lives. Doing laundry, lining up for dinner, chopping wood in the mornings. And untold horrors. My brain can’t imagine, can’t conjure up the demons that destroyed Peter LeBarge from the inside out. Instead, I imagine my relations to those who are absent, those who did not survive. I imagine my relations into being; I pull these connections into the water, into the soil, into the medicines, into the animals, into all that I’m trying to protect. I talk to them. I ask them questions. I ask for guidance. I tell them we haven’t forgotten them. I tell them I’m sorry. And even though they’ll never know truth or reconciliation, I hold them up and say thank you. I say the only Tlingit word I really know: gunalchéesh. For your action, your agency, your sacrifice, your loving containment. I let the sound of it fill my lungs, my hands, my mouth. Gunalchéesh.   

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