Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’;
but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.
Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’
—Exodus 33:12

“I know you by name.” A short declaration, but one that speaks volumes. About community and inclusion. About love and value and respect. A promise, of sorts, that you will always be cared for, no matter what you go through. And there will be a lot to go through.

My parents were born in a fishing community called Safe Harbour, in northwestern Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. They both left in 1941, my father to war and my mother to Corner Brook, where her father had work in the mill. They both left siblings behind: my father’s sister and my mother’s two brothers, all in the graveyard. By 1951, Safe Harbour was completely abandoned. But Josephine, Pierce, and Wilfred remained.

When I was a child, we went to Bonavista Bay every summer, and no trip was complete without a boat trip to Safe Harbour where we would explore, pick berries, boil up a salt beef dinner over a campfire, and visit the graveyard. This was the mid-70s; very little from the community remained – no houses, no fences, a few grave markers. I was always amazed at how my mother knew where the graveyard was, not to mention where her brothers were buried. But she did, and every summer when I was a child she visited their graves, and remembered them.

I find graveyards, and the way that we choose to remember people, fascinating. This summer I visited two that had a profound impact on me.

One of them was a small fenced yard on Pinkie Road, just outside of Regina. Set back from the dirt road, the terrain is uneven. There’s a large tree in one corner, and gravestones for two children next to it. But the land has been surveyed, and we know that there are at least 38 children buried in that yard. The graveyard belonged to the Regina Indian Industrial School, a residential school operated by the Presbyterian Church. The gravestones mark the burial places of John Meredith McLeod and Robert Duncan McLeod, infant sons of the school’s first principal. As for the rest of the buried, they are students, and we don’t know who they are, exactly how many there are, or exactly where they are in that fenced yard. There may even be more outside the fence.

The headstone marking the grave of Joseph Standing Buffalo at Bucquoy Road Cemetery.
The headstone marking the grave of Joseph Standing Buffalo at Bucquoy Road Cemetery.
Credit: 
Sara Stratton

I also visited Bucquoy Road Cemetery in Ficheux, France. This is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery and I was there to visit the grave of Private Joseph Standing Buffalo, Service #2413310, 78th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry. He was the son of Chief Julius Standing Buffalo of Fort Qu’Appelle, and the grandson of Chief Sitting Bull. He died just a few weeks before the end of the First World War, on Sept 29, 1918. He was 20 years old. We don’t really know very much about Joseph Standing Buffalo, but we know who he is, where he came from, and where he is buried.

It’s very easy to point out the difference between the children buried along Pinkie Road and Private Joseph Standing Buffalo. The children remain alone and unnamed; Joseph is publicly remembered for his part in a European war. Yet there is also a similarity in their stories. They are all­­ victims of colonization. The children attended the industrial school for the sole purpose of tearing them away from their traditional ways and assimilating them into Canadian society. Had Joseph Standing Buffalo lived and returned home, he would have been enfranchised: given the right to vote but stripped of his Indian status, his First Nations identity. Assimilated into Canadian society. And I suppose, even in death, under the maple leaves carved into his crisp white Canadian gravestone, he was.

I found these two cemeteries very difficult land to stand upon.

The orderly headstones at Commonwealth Graveyard in France.
The orderly headstones at Commonwealth Graveyard in France.
Credit: 
Sara Stratton

The war cemeteries of France, because they are so orderly, initially give you a sense of firm ground, but then you gradually become aware of the scope of what you seeing, the magnitude of the slaughter, and it dawns on you that you are standing on what is essentially a mass grave. We’ve just somehow chosen to treat these graves, and the people whose remains are buried here, with the respect they deserve.

Anyone interested in anyone from any Army (including the German army) who was killed in that region of France during WWI and WW2 can look them up and find where their remains are buried. If there is no known grave, their name will be engraved on a monument to the missing. There are 11,285 such Canadian names carved into the monument at Vimy. Another 6,994 at Ypres. At nearby Thiepval, more than 72,000 missing British and South African soldiers are memorialized. And if, tomorrow, one of those soldiers’ remains was found as a field was being turned, they would be reburied in a cemetery with a proper marker and their name would be taken off the “missing” monument. It is that important that they are honoured and remembered.

It is important that they are known by name. And that anyone looking for them will know where to find them.

As I’ve already mentioned, the ground was so uneven in the graveyard on Pinkie Road that it was literally difficult to keep your footing. But it was also spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually difficult. In a normal graveyard, you know where the graves are. You know how to move among them with respect for those who lie beneath the soil. Here I had no idea of where I was walking, of who might be beneath my feet. It felt profoundly disrespectful to walk this land, and I found myself treading as lightly as I possibly could.

It made me think back to the graveyard in Safe Harbour. It always saddened me to think of Pierce and Wilfred left behind left while everyone moved on. It saddened me to think of my grandparents leaving their sons behind, my mother and her surviving siblings leaving their brothers behind. But they always knew where to find them, and they always came back to visit.

No parent or sibling of a child who attended and died at the Regina Indian Industrial School would have been able to do that. Not in an unmarked graveyard, or one that fell into disrepair. Those students probably have several generations of cousins and nieces and nephews who do not even know they existed. I at least know that I had an aunt named Josephine, and uncles named Pierce and Wilfred. I even have a photograph of Pierce. And I know, at least roughly, where they are.

The cemetery on Pinkie Road is not an isolated story. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada records 3,200 children on its registers of confirmed deaths at residential schools. A third of these deaths were recorded without a name. Twenty-five percent recorded no gender. Forty-nine percent recorded no cause of death.

Residential school students died at a higher rate than children in regular schools and homes. When my young uncles died in the 1930s, the Canadian death rate for children aged 5-14 was about 1.5 per thousand. The death rate for residential school students was between four and seven per thousand. The TRC concluded that “the failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools.”

And of course because there are residential school graveyards, we know that the students’ bodies were not sent home to their communities. Even worse, the families often were not notified. Many would not know until a child scheduled to come home did not. That could be a matter of months or years, depending on the remoteness of the community.

These 3,200 children, even if their name is recorded, really were not known by name by the system that took them in and tried to remake them in another image. But they were known by name to someone, to the parents, siblings, and other relations. To the communities from which they were ripped.

And while we may never know all their names, these children are still loved and valued by community, and by those of us who are committed not just to reconciliation for the past but to decolonization for the future.

I went to the cemetery on Pinkie Road with the Moderator and a group from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church in Australia, who visited Canada this summer for the first part of an ongoing dialogue between our churches on reconciliation. Lorna Standingready from Treaty 4 brought us there. Lorna is past leading elder of the All Native Circle Conference, and a residential school survivor. Before we entered the graveyard, she prayed and laid tobacco down to honour the children buried there. Others in the Indigenous community, along with non-Indigenous allies, have done significant work to honour them as well, most recently getting provincial heritage status for the cemetery, ensuring that it will not be forgotten or lost to development. Similar things are happening elsewhere. In September, the Remembering the Children Society in Alberta raised a memorial stone for Jane Baptiste, Georgina House, David Lightning, and Sarah Soosay, who died at Red Deer Industrial School (a Methodist school) in 1918.

This work is all a part of the TRC Calls to Action on how we commemorate and honour all the students of Indian Residential Schools. The ones who survived, and the ones who did not. The ones we know by name, and the ones we do not.

The parties to the settlement agreement are now actively working on identifying where the 3,200 children noted in the TRC report are buried, so that they can be properly located and identified. As for those whose names we do not know, they can still be honoured, as Lorna helped us to honour the children on Pinkie Road.

Earlier this year, a group of Gitxan survivors of the Edmonton Indian Residential School undertook a journey back to the school., funded by the United Church’s Healing Fund. One of the participants noted that they even as they were engaged in a ceremony of Guuk Guhl O’Tsin (“taking back our spirit”) on the school grounds, they felt the presence of children who had never come home. But, he said, they must have been helped by the ceremony as well, because that night one of the Elders had a dream in which he was surrounded by hundreds of children trying to touch him. He understood them to be those children who did not make it home. But they were happy now, because they were coming home.

Home, to where they are known by name.

 —Sara Stratton, Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice Animator for The United Church of Canada. She preached this sermon at Harcourt Memorial United Church, Guelph ON, October 29, 2017