By Melissa Mbarki, September 30, 2021
I grew up on the Muskowekwan First Nation which closed the doors of the local residential school in 1997. An eerie building sits at the end of a tree-lined road. Behind it lay only fields and empty reserve land.
We shared a public school with the children from this school. Every day their bus arrived — morning, lunch and after school. In Grade 1, I noticed they dressed the same and they were assigned numbers. They had numbers on every piece of clothing, even their socks.
My best friend’s number was 52. She came from a small town about an hour away from the residential school. As the months passed, we started to plan her escape. I told her she could walk to my house.
We were six years old. I could see the lights at night from the “mission” (what we called the residential school) so I thought it had to be close, not knowing we were separated by a major highway, 4-5 kilometres of fields and a train.
Despite the terrain, many children did run away. They were eventually found hiding, walking on the highway or train tracks, or at a nearby house. They never made it very far. Some of the older kids had formed alliances and hid their friends on the reserve, sometimes for weeks.
When I talk about this, I have to remind myself that we were elementary students in Grades 1-6. It wasn’t uncommon to have the RCMP sweep certain parts of the reserve for missing kids. This was just part of our lives.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in Grade 4 and my brother in Grade 1. He was best friends with this little boy who had a slight disability. This little boy went home for the holidays and never came back. He committed suicide.
What would make a 7/8-year-old commit suicide? This devastated my family and I remember seeing the shock and horror on my mom’s face when she told us the news. To this day, I wonder what was going on in that school that made this little boy so badly not want to go back.
That same year another tragedy happened. A car struck one of my friends while on a visit with her family. I remember these early feelings of intense grief. I now understood that if they did not get off the bus, something tragic happened to them.
It was like this for many years after. Accidents, suicides, incarcerations and early pregnancies. These were children Grade 7 and under.
It was in Grade 7 when number 52 made it to my home. You can imagine my shock when she showed up at my window. My mom allowed her to spend the evening with us while arrangements were made. I have not seen her since.
I know that she is alive and I hope she is doing well. Survivors of these schools have endured so much trauma. My story is one small piece to their puzzle. For those who are alive today, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is for you.
You survived one of the most horrendous experiences in this country. The challenges after residential schools gave you and your children a different kind of number today. You make up some of the highest numbers for incarceration rates, children in care, poverty, suicides, homicides, MMIWG and homelessness.
We honour the little ones in unmarked graves. You were loved. You had parents and a family waiting for your return.
Tobacco down and prayers up for everyone who was impacted by this tragic history.
Melissa Mbarki is Policy Analyst and Outreach Co-ordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. She is a member of the Muskowekwan First Nation.