A century has passed since a residential school near Dunbow Road plucked hundreds of indigenous children from their homes to be assimilated into the new colonial society.
Crumbling buildings, unmarked graves and the sad memories of those who attended from 1884 to 1922 are all that remain of Dunbow Industrial School, originally St. Joseph’s Industrial School, in a quiet valley along the Highwood River near Dunbow Road.
Among the few people to visit the site in recent years was Alice Yates, a Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (STS) alumna who, along with her peers in the school's Humanitarian Outreach Program in 2014, honoured some of the children who had died while attending the residential school.
“It was super impactful,” recalls Yates of the experience. “Being a part of that club and focusing more on the issues heightened my awareness to it. It began my interest and social awareness around indigenous issues.”
A flood had eroded the banks of the Highwood River in 1996, exposing caskets and the remains of children that had been buried near the river so long ago.
Traditional aboriginal and Christian ceremonies were conducted to commemorate the reburial of the 34 individuals, and two monuments were erected five years later.
The release of the butterflies by STS students was captured by Calgary filmmaker Laurie Sommerville in her 10-minute documentary Little Moccasins, which delves into the school’s history and the discovery of the children.
“It made me aware of the issue that weren’t taught about that in our curriculum,” said Yates, a McGill University English major and Indigenous studies minor. “Being a part of that club and focusing more on the issues heightened my awareness to it."
According to findagrave.com, 430 indigenous children learned academics, agriculture and domestic skills during those 38 years.
Seventy-three died due to poor health care and living conditions.
Somerville had collected facts from the Calgary Public Library and Glenbow Museum, and gleaned details about the conditions of the facility and how the children were treated from a ledger and letters written from administration to the government.
Documentation reveals that the children’s native clothing was replaced with western clothing, each was assigned a Christian name and number, they weren’t given adequate medicine to treat illnesses like influenza and tuberculosis, they were beaten for speaking their native tongue and many were held in solitary in a barn where some scratched dates and pictures on boards that are still visible today.
With Yates’ participation in Little Moccasins a memory, her frustrations over the treatment of indigenous children in residential schools was awoken after ground-penetrating radar located the remains of 215 First Nations children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds last month.
“I was very appalled and shocked,” said Yates. “I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for the indigenous community. The outrage should be followed by action and understanding and better education. That reaction should be a catalyst for genuine change.”
Judy Goldsworthy, an STS teacher who got students involved in the documentary, hopes to see good come out of the discovery.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of fallout from this,” she said. “I’m hopeful it will increase our compassion.”
Goldsworthy said she feels children today are more aware of the past than they’ve ever been.
“Our children today are so much more informed,” she said. “They know about residential schools, they know about rights and privileges and they know about the truth and reconciliation that’s going on now.”
The discovery in Kamloops was especially hard on Leah Koski, an Okotoks resident whose mom, Pauline Dempsey, attended a residential school near Cardston from age five to 16.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “Even the idea of the government coming in and taking these kids at five years old from their families, it’s just a tragedy.”
Growing up in a residential school
Dempsey, now 91, remembers a lot about her experience at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, which operated from 1889 to 1975 under Anglican administration on the Blood Reserve near Cardston.
She was the youngest of seven children, all of whom attended residential schools.
“I think about it a lot,” Dempsey said. “Most of my friends I went to school with have died, but many didn’t want to talk about it. Too many hurtful memories.”
Dempsey remembers a girl about five years older than she was who was hugging the hot water pipe to keep warm. Dempsey figures she was very ill at the time.
When she wouldn’t join the activities, the matron got angry and slapped her, Dempsey said.
“You could hear her head bang against the pipe,” she said. “She was sent to the hospital and I never saw her again. We never found out what happened to her.”
Discipline was harsh. Dempsey said children were given the strap and hit often.
“If one child did something wrong the whole school was punished for it,” she said. “It was hard when you didn’t have any affection from anyone. The wonderful thing about St. Paul’s is we did have lifelong friends, and that was a blessing. We just relied on each other.”
The school wasn’t far from Dempsey’s home. Dempsey and her siblings could see their farm from the school window.
“I remember when my sister would get up to sharpen her pencil she could see our home through the window and these sad, sad tears came to her eyes,” she said. “We could see our dad driving out of the driveway and doing things and it was very sad that we couldn’t be with them every day.”
Dempsey’s brother would run away from home, only to be brought back in a wagon by their father, James Gladstone. Gladstone had attended St. Paul's Anglican Residential School himself, and in the 1940s became an indigenous rights advocate and was appointed Canada's first senator with Indian Status in 1958.
Although Dempsey's days spent in a residential school have long passed, the memories came flooding back after the remains were discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“I thought it was so awful,” she said. “I can’t get them out of my mind.”
Dempsey expects it will take many generations before people of all backgrounds can stand together as equals – but residential schools will always leave a permanent mark.
“How it came about, I wish someone would really explain it and say why they did it because in the end they killed a whole culture,” she said. “All that’s left is fragments of it here and there.”