‘Stolen Kainai Children’: New Exhibit Features Indigenous Survivor Stories From Alberta’s Colonial Education System
Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Indigenous Black Canadian, and a member of the Kainai Blood Tribe in Alberta, London, Ontario, May 19, 2021. Photo: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Canadian Press
In Canada, when we talk about truth and reconciliation we have a tendency to focus on the Indian residential school system (IRS).
While engaging with knowledge about residential schools and their legacies is an important facet of truth and reconciliation, there are other colonial school systems that we also need to acknowledge, consider and remember.
In addition to Survivors of the IRS, we have Survivors of other colonial school systems the Canadian government initiated and implemented for over a century and a half.
As a member of the Kainai (Blood Tribe) of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Treaty 7 territory in Alberta, part of my research has analyzed the educational policies behind the IRS and other colonial schooling models, and how these policies have influenced my own Blood People. As my chapter in the collection Brave Work in Indigenous Education examines, multiple school models existed at the same time.
Multiple Colonial Schooling Models
The Canadian government initiated and implemented multiple colonial schooling models for over a century and a half beyond the IRS, such as:
- the industrial school system and boarding schools, the precursor for residential schools;
- the residency system: some residential schools became places where students lived while bussed off-reserve to attend public school. For example, St. Paul’s on the Blood Reserve became a residency or hostel while Blood children were bussed to the nearest public school;
- the day school system and the public school system.
Where one system failed, the government designed a new school system based on the failure of the previous school model to try and assimilate Indigenous children.
Survivors From Many School Models
Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said, “The Survivors need to know before they leave this Earth that people understand what happened and what the schools did to them.”
As a society, it is important that we remember Survivors from each school model and their many impacts on Survivors, their descendants and society as a whole.
As I have worked in this area, and spoken to Survivors across Canada, I have learned that educational policy was never explained to children and their families in these systems. Addressing this gap in knowledge is imperative for Survivors, their descendants and Canadians. People need to know and understand the truth about what happened to Survivors and why this happened to them in order to heal and walk the path of reconciliation.
Addressing Gaps in Knowledge
When the Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge, Alta. (also known as Akaisamitohkanao’pa, or gathering place) approached me to be a guest curator and create a traveling museum exhibit based on my TRC research, I decided to use the opportunity to rectify the gap of knowledge so many of us have about educational policy.
The exhibit is called Stolen Kainai Children: Stories of Survival. It presents photographs and stories from Survivors, the Canadian government, the Christian religions and their missionaries, the Indian Agents and Indian school inspectors.
The exhibit shows the evolution of the colonial school system from mission schools to band-controlled education, and a timeline examining the difference between the school models, with photographs of each model and educational policy accompanying it. Most importantly, the exhibit is filled with stories from Survivors.
Right to Know the Truth
The exhibit is motivated by the TRC’s 2015 Calls to Action, specifically number 69, which called for museums and archives to:
“i.) fully adopt and implement the … United Nations Joinet-Orentlicher Principles, as related to Aboriginal peoples’ inalienable right to know the truth about what happened and why,” and “iii.) Commit more resources to its public education materials and programming on residential schools.”
Multiple Christian Churches
The exhibit introduces the different Christian churches who created missions on the Blood Reserve, and shows Survivor experiences of missions’ different characteristics. For example, as Survivor Jim Young Pine shares about attending St. Mary’s School:
“The nuns at the school were French and always spoke French. As a result, I didn’t learn English very well. The St. Paul’s Anglican Residential School students spoke better English than we did. Their teachers and supervisors spoke only English all the time. It was while working outside Kainaisskahoyi that I learned English from non-Natives.”
Young Pine’s account is from a collection of 1995 interviews from my community documented in the collection, Stories from our Elders.
Churches opened several of the different schools the Canadian government devised to try and assimilate Indigenous children.
Stories from Survivors of Institutions
The stories allow viewers to glimpse what it was like to attend these schools. The stories are also a testament to the survival of the Blood People.
Despite all of the acts, legislation and educational policy that was created with the intention to assimilate us into a Eurocentric way of life, we are still here. We are still Indigenous. We continue to retain our identities as Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot People).
We have resisted the governments’ call to assimilate us. We have persevered and fought back to retain our identities. We continue today to practice and live our ways of knowing, being and doing as Siksikaitsitapi.
The exhibit concludes on a note of hope by highlighting the resiliency of the Kainai People.
Maintaining Our identities as Siksikaitsitapi
In 1988, the Blood Tribe took control of tribal education. Today, the Blood Tribe runs its own education programs from early childhood education to post-secondary education.
Kainai Board of Education operates five schools (Saipoyi Community School, Aahsaopi Elementary School, Tatsikiisaapo’p Middle School, Kainai High School and Kainai Alternate Academy).
Mi’kai’sto (Red Crow Community College) has been operating since 1986 and has a satellite campus in Lethbridge, Alta. Originally, Mi’kai’sto opened in the St. Mary’s IRS that burned down in 2015. Mi’kai’sto was rebuilt in Standoff, Alta., and opened in 2022.
The Blood Reserve has worked hard to create education that works towards maintaining our identities as Siksikaitsitapi. Kainai values are taught and Elders and knowledge holders are a regular part of a student’s learning journey.
Education as ‘New Buffalo’
To many Indigenous Peoples across plains regions in Canada, education has become the “new buffalo.” This means just as the buffalo once sustained us for our needs, Indigenous Peoples are adapting education to meet our needs today.
To observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and all year,
let us be reminded of Survivors’ voices from the past century and a half, and as Sinclair said, re-commit our reconciliation efforts to “act to ensure the repair of damages done.” As the former TRC chair also said, until people show they have learned from this, we will never forget.