No names, just numbers
Wilton Littlechild doesn’t remember the details but he remembers the cold of a Canadian winter.
“It’s a bit of a vague memory but at the same time, it’s in my head in terms of being taken on a team of horses. It was in the middle of winter, in fact, it was January according to the records, that I was taken to the school in January and I think like everybody else, your first day of school, so-called school, was a memorable day for all of us.”
“According to the files I’ve seen on myself, I was six years old when I was taken. I went to three different ones over a period of a total of 14 years, different residential schools.”
Littlechild was one of more than 150,000 indigenous children in Canada who were forcibly taken and sent to residential schools from the 1870s through to the 1990s.
Part of their official purpose was to strip the children’s indigenous identity, which was regarded as inferior. One of the first things Littlechild remembers is having his name taken away.
“Your name was immediately replaced by a number. My number was 65. So I was never called by my name in school, it was a number, ‘number 65, come here, 65, why did you do that stupid, 65 you dummy, why didn’t you do your homework’. So everyone experienced a loss of not only self-identity and self-awareness but self-esteem. Many of our children or students of the time had long hair, braided hair, which was culturally and spiritually significant. If you had long hair it was cut, yourhair
was cut. If you had any traditional clothing, it was taken, like footwear, a jacket. Any cultural manifestation of our Cree tradition was removed the first day of school.”
“So you grew up without any parents, you have an institution that is supposed to be your parent.”
The abuse he suffered over that period instilled an anger in him that even now at the age of 73 he struggles to deal with.
“I dedicated myself to run away from the abuse by participating in competitive sport and that was what got me into college and university and in fact into law school. It was always through sport that I was able to deal with some of that history.”
“I remember one of my counsellors said to me, ‘why do you like hockey so much?’ I said, ‘well I feel good physically, it’s good exercise’. ‘No, no, no, why do you like it?’ I said, ‘I just told you’.”
“He kept challenging me. He said, ‘you know why you like hockey? The reason you like hockey is because you are allowed to hit people. You’re allowed to be violent. What you’ve been doing is you’ve been suppressing your own anger inside of you by playing a sport where you can hit people. It gives you a false release, a false belief that it was good for you. But you’ve been hiding your anger and you’ve been participating in violent sports because you think that makes you feel better but you’re hiding your own emotion, you’re hiding your own abuse that way’.”
“It took a long time and good counselling advice from him to actually deal with that. But I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. I didn’t understand myself that well to be able to figure that out.”
“Your name was immediately replaced by a number. My number was 65. I was never called by my name in school.”
‘The darkest chapter in Canadian history’
Littlechild said sport saved his life and opened doors that might have otherwise been closed, including a career in law and as a politician.
This background and his first-hand experience of the residential school system also meant he was a logical choice when Canada launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to investigate the residential schooling system. It published its final report in 2015.
“It resulted from the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian legal history. There were almost 15,000 cases across the country once they started. So the judges were overwhelmed by the cases, the number of abuse cases. So the judges asked the plaintiffs collectively if they were willing to settle out of court. After many months of negotiations between the plaintiff lawyers and the defendants, the government and the churches, there was an agreement, a settlement was made to settle out court on four conditions.”
One of those conditions was the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The survivors argued, this story is the darkest chapter in Canadian history, the most unknown chapter. We need to have Canada become aware of what happened to children, to come to know this sad history of Canada. We need the truth-telling process, then after that the reconciliation - how do we restore the respectful relationships where they’ve been harmed so much?”
Despite the formation of the commission, the government still tried to undermine its authority.
“Even after we were established as a commission, we had to go back to court to get a court order to order the government of Canada to release documents to us. Because we couldn’t tell the complete truth, knowing that documents were being shredded, being burned or being hidden. So we went to court and we won each time. So the courts ordered Canada to release the documents to us that they were holding. And very reluctantly, they did.”
But that wasn’t the only hurdle. Possibly more difficult was building trust with the victims. Littlechild said it was crucial for the commission to not only be technically independent but perceived to be independent by those who had gone through the institutions.
“I remember being asked quite angrily, ‘what makes you think you’re going to believe my story, I’ve told it seven times, nobody believes me, what makes you think you’re going to be able to hear my story?’”
“At first I felt I was being personally attacked. They didn’t know I was a residential school student for 14 years. So I told them I really appreciated their testimony, their lived experience, because they were telling me my story. Many times. The experience they were talking about was my story. That’s why I felt that I could believe their story.”
“When that got across on the moccasin telegraph as we call it, that here was a former student sitting as a commissioner, they opened up. They were quite willing to tell me their experience once they knew I had been down that path myself. It was very helpful. But it started out with a level of mistrust or distrust or lack of trust. We had to build that trust and it took us about a year actually, to build enough trust for the survivors to be willing to come forward and tell us their experience.”
The other two commissioners didn’t have direct experience of the residential schools but they had close personal connections.
“Justice Sinclair, the chairperson, she didn’t go to residential school but her parents did. And Marie Wilson she didn’t go to residential school either, but her husband did. That link, that bond between the three of us, I think was really helpful to make sure we strengthened our foundation of independence.”
“I told them I really appreciated their testimony, their lived experience, because they were telling me my story.”