The last residential school standing in Saskatchewan — the Muscowequan Residential School — exists as a monument to the atrocities committed by Canada’s federal government and churches in the name of assimilation, and as a site for remembrance and grief for the Muskowekwan First Nation.
Like many residential schools of the period, the precise location of the initial Muscowequan school building, built around 1886, was never recorded. Its management changed hands, from the Catholic church, to the federal government, and finally, to Muskowekwan Education Centre — just as the building itself changed locations. There were add-ons and, like many of the schools, it burned to the ground and was relocated nearby. Though the building has since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, the Touchwood Agency Tribal Council, which represents First Nations in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, sees the school as having a powerful role to play in commemoration, remembrance and ongoing public education.
The school stopped operating as a government-run residential school in 1982, and closed fully in 1997, at which time the Saskatchewan government offered the agency funding to tear down the building. The agency refused at the time and still hopes to instead transform the building into a museum and archive, a site of public memory, commemoration and conscience. Despite its history, Survivors and the surrounding community feel strongly that the building must be preserved as a site of memory. Based on a combination of official reports and local oral history, it is estimated there are at least three unmarked areas where children were buried. In 1992, a construction company accidentally unearthed the remains of nearly 20 children. The total number of children buried there remains uncertain but is thought to be higher than this.
This issue is ongoing, but the Touchwood Agency plans to respectfully document the children that remain unrecognized and to care for them by safeguarding and honouring their final resting place in a positive way. For the Muskowekwan community, the school represents a powerful site of social memory and the opportunity both to remember what the children and community were subject to and to celebrate the perseverance, survival and resistance of the many children and parents affected by the school. Like the building, they too have endured a prolonged attack on their way of life and traditional practice but remain standing and are looking forward to a better future.
Nationally, many former students view the schools as the last sites of resistance against an encroaching colonial project designed to remove Indigenous children—their voices, traditions, and culture — from Canada’s cultural fabric. It was at these schools traditional knowledge was erased, identities were obscured and languages were lost.
Missing Children and Unmarked Burials
The unmarked gravesites at the Muscowequan Residential School are just a few of hundreds identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission across Canada. Through the course of its mandate, the TRC documented more than 3,100 student deaths, though that number could be closer to 6,000 or even higher. It was standard practice to construct a cemetery directly attached to the schools in many locations. Many cemeteries remain unmarked and undocumented at locations attached to former sites of residential schools and close to some of the schools that remain standing. There is a great deal of work still to be done to properly honour and remember the children who remain missing. Estimates suggest there may be as many as 400 unmarked gravesites near the sites of former residential schools.
I always blamed the residential school for killing my brother. Dalton was his name. I never, I never, I never ever forgave them. I don’t know whether my dad and mother ever knew how he died, but I never found out. But I know that he died over there. They allowed me to [go] and see him once before he died, and he didn’t even know me. He was a little guy, laying in the bed in the infirmary, dying, and I didn’t know ’til he died. You know that’s, that was the end of my education.
Ray Silver, from “The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada”
One of the darkest elements of the residential school system was how many children disappeared while attending residential schools. They would die from disease, abuse, neglect and occasionally, trying to run away. Often, it would take weeks or months for parents of students at residential schools to receive word their child had died. Many families still wait for answers.
Sen. Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, summarized the situation: “They just didn’t bother keeping track of children who died. I think that is unacceptable.”
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the federal and provincial governments, and local communities are called upon in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action to continue the work of the TRC’s Working Group on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. The communities most affected will need to lead other parties through this important work. Central in this is the recognition that some children will never be identified due to the passage of time and poor record-keeping. In other locations, the children will need to be brought home. This is a highly sensitive journey that the country must embark upon to ensure those children who attended the schools but never returned are finally remembered, respected and given a proper resting place.
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