Intergenerational survivor finds comfort in community at ceremony for 215 children buried in Kamloops

This First Person article is the experience of Melanie Ferris, a parent and proud member of the Long Plain First Nation in southern Manitoba. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Although I grew up being exposed to anti-Indigenous racism, I only started to learn about residential schools once I was an adult, thanks to university. 

This knowledge is important.

 As an intergenerational survivor, knowing something about what happened to my grandparents helped open up important conversations I needed to have with my mother. 

It improved my understanding of the trauma my mom went through in her life. 

Soon after I graduated from university, I worked at an Aboriginal health organization in Ottawa. Working there enabled me to learn about my culture and the damage done via the residential schools, Sixties Scoop, etc. 

I learned how these systems contributed to overall poorer health status and lower life expectancy for Indigenous people in Canada. I also met and interviewed elders and traditional people who helped push me onto a path of learning more about my First Nations identity and culture. 

Without a connection to my culture, I was missing an essential part of myself. 

My mother’s story

Years ago, my mom allowed me to interview her for a story I was writing about the Portage Residential School. Survivors of residential schools (and their children) have been wanting to convey their message to the world for so long. 

My maternal grandfather attended the Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School, while my grandmother attended the Sandy Bay Residential School. They were removed from their loving families at a young age.

“Residential school affected me in a lot of ways. It disrupted our whole family,” my mother told me. She shared that her father was abused at the school.

“My sisters and I were split up and raised by other people and it wasn’t very good. If my parents were raised in their own home, I don’t think it would’ve happened because my grandparents weren’t like that.”

Residential school survivors Marina Smoke, 85, left, and Janice Longclaws, 66, right, at a ceremony at the former Portage residential school site this week. ‘It’s important to be with my community to listen to the stories and reflections of survivors,’ says Melanie Ferris. (Submitted by Melanie Ferris)

My mom, like many Indigenous children, was removed from her parents at a young age. She was part of the Sixties Scoop and was moved to Oregon with her siblings. She eventually came to live in non-Indigenous foster homes in Manitoba. 

Surrounded by English speakers, my mom lost her first language, Anishinaabe. This loss of language impacts many of us and there is a movement amongst survivors to learn and reclaim our languages.

Portage ceremony

This week, residential school survivors in Manitoba came together on the grounds of the Portage Residential School to feast and honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the site of the Kamloops Residential School. 

I was grateful to attend ceremony this week. It’s important to be with my community to listen to the stories and reflections of survivors. 

We must continue to recognize the harm done to First Nations children right here in Manitoba. 

We must work to determine how many unmarked graves are on the grounds of residential schools in our province. We should work with their families and communities to determine how to properly honour the children who never made it home.

Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches, left, sings an honour song on the grounds of the former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School. (Submitted by Melanie Ferris)

“When I woke up this morning, it was very difficult,” shared Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, who was joined by other dignitaries and former students on the grounds of the Portage Residential School for the honouring ceremony.

“My heart goes out to the little ones that were lost souls for many years,” said Chief Meeches.

“Behind me we have Portage la Prairie Residential School. In 2005, it was declared a provincial heritage site. Last year, after many, many years, we have managed to achieve national historic site status on this building,” he said. 

“No different than Kamloops, this building will remain as a testament to our will to survive for our generations, from our parents, our aunties, our uncles that attended these schools. Although this is a scar on the soul of this nation, that history must be preserved.” 

My hope is that all Canadians continue to listen to our stories and learn about our lived realities with open minds and hearts.– Melanie Ferris

The world has responded with horror to the news out of Kamloops. This is only one school. The hope of many is that Canadians are willing to confronting the dark truths of what occurred at these schools.

“Right across this country we have seen unprecedented support from Canadians. Finally, I think they may come to understand the challenges we face as Indigenous people in this land. Finally, they will hopefully come to terms with what happened at these schools,” shared Chief Meeches. 

“We have taken steps now to begin searching this property also, as there may be the possibility of unmarked graves on this historic, sacred site,” he said.

“We are thankful that Canada, I believe we have their support in searching, researching residential school sites across this country. We have heard many stories in recent days from our own Long Plain Anishnaabe and Dakota people that there is the possibility of unmarked graves that are here.”

This week has been challenging. But having access to my beautiful First Nations culture is helpful and comforting. 

Five-year-old Lincoln Carter Peters Fontaine, a Long Plain band member, at the ceremony to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the site of the Kamloops residential school. (Submitted by Melanie Ferris)

I’m thankful I’ve been able to reclaim cultural knowledge and to witness the healing work being done in our communities. 

My hope is that all Canadians continue to listen to our stories and learn about our lived realities with open minds and hearts, as our country attempts to move forward on a much-needed path of reconciliation. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.