Residential School survivors speak out on family members who disappeared from schools

Photo by Tawnya Plain Eagle
By Tawnya Plain Eagle

When the news broke of the 215 remains recovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Gayle Strikes With a Gun was filled with emotion. 

“I cried myself to sleep,” she said. 

After taking the weekend to process the news, she said this brought back memories her would share about their little aunt.

“As my siblings and I talked, we began to talk about our aunt Josephine.”   

Strikes with a Gun’s mother Cecile, age 5, and her sister Josephine, age 3, were brought the the Sacred Heart Residential School in Piikani Nation. 

Josephine was one of the children who was killed while attending the school.

“Josephine may have been at the age of 4 when she was killed,” Strikes With a Gun said.

“I say killed, because it was not an accident,” she added. 

When children were brought to the school she said they were separated into age groups and according to Strikes with a Gun, Cecile couldn’t take of her sister. 

Signs hung up at the Catholic Church from Gayle Strikes With a Gun's family. Photo by Tawnya Plain Eagle

According to the National Centre for Truth of Reconciliation the Piikani Nation had two residential schools located on the reserve, The Sacred Heart Residential School, opened in 1898 and the St. Cyprian Residential School, opened in 1890.

St. Cyprian Residential School was first established as St. Peter’s Mission Day School in 1878 by Rev. George McKay but was soon replaced by the Peigan Mission Home in 1890 with Rev. H.D Borne Bourne. The home was substandard and still too small, prompting the CMS and Indian Affairs to conduct a new residential school west of Brocket. 

In 1897, the Victoria Jubilee Home for Indian Childrenlocated on the river bottom near the Old Man river was opened. However, due to consistent flooding, the home was deemed unsafe and was moved to higher ground in 1927 where the new St. Cyprian Residential School was opened.

Strikes With a Gun’s said her mother never stopped looking for sister, she still remembers Cecile going back to where the Sacred Heart Residential School was to look for a potential grave site for Josephine. 

“She was only 5 years old when this happened, I could imagine it must have been very hard for her, she loved her sister,” Strikes with a Gun said. 

“She didn’t know much about what happened, over the years my mother never had that time to grieve the loss of her sister,” she said. 

When the news went public about the 215 remains recovered at the Kamloops former Indian residential school, Strikes With a Gun and her siblings couldn’t help but think about their “little aunt." She says that throughout the years their mother would share stories of Josephine with them until her passing in 1981. 

“We grew up feeling very connected to her.”  

Gayle Strikes With a Gun, and a group of elders gathered at the Catholic Church to say a prayer on June 8. Photo by Tawnya Plain Eagle

Residential Schools were established in Canada in 1831 to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children from their traditions and indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living. The last school closed in 1996.

Wallace Yellow Face feels his rights as a human were taken the moment he was brought to Sacred Heart Residential School. 

He remembers being a young boy living at home when two priests had taken his sister from residential school. 

“Every month you get to go home for a visit from the school,” Yellow Face said. 

“One time [my brothers] came home and they were disappointed because my sister had disappeared from the school.” 

He remembers his brother saying that one of the priests had left the school with the clerk’s agencies’ wife and his sister. 

“Her bed and everything were gone with no word on where she went.” 

Not long after the incident, he remembers a red jeep pulling up to their house, with excitement he thought they were about to deliver good news regarding his sister. 

“We welcomely went to meet these two priests, but instead they got after my mom, they grabbed my mother by the elbow,” he said. 

“I was just a kid, trying to help my mother but that scuffle went on for a while.”

As he recalls this story, Yellow Face says this wasn’t the only time this would have happened to children who attended the school. 

“In those days, they went through our natives like that,” Yellow Face added. 

Since the announcement of the 215 children recovered from Kamloops Residential School, many nations began conducting their own searches which led to the discovery of more unmarked graves in Cowessess First Nation and St. Eugene Missionary, to name a few.

Piikani Nation released a statement last month announcing their plan to conduct their own search for any undocumented graves. 

They’ll be concentrating on four specific sites and will be working in conjunction with the Piikani Lands Department and the University of Lethbridge to perform what’s called air-penetrating radar. 

When Yellow Face was older, he remembers working in timbers when his sister arrived back home.  Although she returned home, she had requested from her family not to ask any questions about what had happened to her while she was missing. 

Children going missing from their families did not stop at the end of the residential school era. In the mid 1950’s policies enacted by provincial child welfare authorities that saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from her families and placed into foster care eventually adopting out to white families across Canada and the United States.

Richard Inman, originally from Piikani, grew up in foster care with no connection to his community or family. 

The grandson of the late Maggie Muggins (Strikes With a Gun), Inman was raised by a Mennonite family in Manitoba. 

Richard Inman and Peter Strike With a Gun looking at old photos on June 30. Photo by Tawnya Plain Eagle

Although during the summer months, he would spend a few weeks with his mormon grandparents in Hill Spring, Alta.

During that time, he remembers going to the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump and fishing in nearby lakes. 

“So, I always knew this was home,” he said.

Although it was an emotional day, Inman met with relative Peter Strikes With A Gun on June 30 to gain more clarity of his lineage in Piikani.

“It’s a lot to process, I was sitting with Henry Big Throat, when I first met him it was an overwhelming feeling… I just had a moment where I realized that I’ve never felt that kind of welcoming ever,” he said. 

Inman has two other brothers been communicating with who currently reside in the states.  Now that he’s older, he moved closer to home. 

Although this is only three stories, there are countless other untold stories of children who were taken from their community. Some were lucky to return home while others remain lost.

“The families of these children have not forgotten them,” Strikes With a Gun says.  

According to National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation a 1909 study of health conditions in residential schools in the west found that 65 students who attended the school since 1892 had died due to over grounding and inadequate water supply. 

As part of the Truth and Reconciliations’ 94 Calls to Action, Canada must acknowledge what has place during the residential school era and Strikes With a Gun says it is important these stories are properly documented. 

In 2020 , the new proposed Alberta curriculum eliminated much of the residential school content suggesting that that it was too sensitive for elementary school students. 

However Strikes with a Gun says that these stories need to be properly documented so that Canadians are aware what happened to Indigenous children at these schools. 

The colonizers wanted our lands, so they starved, beat and killed our people just to acquire the lands.” she said.

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