What the Land Holds

There is a special piece of land a few kilometres south of Chapleau Ontario.

A copse of trees huddles on a slope between the road above and a rail line on the valley floor. The trees are birch,  pine and spruce, spaced close enough together to block out most of teh sun. Somehow flowers more commonly associated with the prairie have crept in around the edges, like smooth rose with their little pink bell-shaped buds.

From the Height of Land here, the waters either flow south and west into the Great Lakes and on to the Atlantic. Or they flow north into James Bay and the Arctic.

That’s why this land has been an area of encounter between cultures for centuries. The Anishnaabe paddled up from the south, and the Cree down from the north. The French arrive when this province was known as le Pays d’en Haut. Indeed, the author of the most famous French Canadian novel ever, Maria Chapdelaine, is buried here.

The British came in the form of the Hudsons Bay Company. This land only became Canada in 1905, when the government of Sir Wilfred Laurier signed Treaty No 9 with the Cree.

But what makes this land more special now is what lies within it.

Several dozen children died while attending the local residential school, and were buried here.

 

 

Less than two years after this land became part of Canada, an institution was established here to force children to adopt the new way of life, to lose their culture and their community and become individual, undifferentiated citizens of a country created in the image of settlers from far away.

St John's residential school was one of the most notorious of these institutions. Like many other residential schools, children were forcibly separated from their families, went hungry, and lived in unsanitary conditions.

Unlike many other schools, children started dying almost immediately after the school opened in 1907.

In 1908, a seven year-old girl named Frances came down with tuberculosis. She was forced to stay at the school despite the lack of any proper sanitation. The Anglican archives show that of the many other students that contracted the disease, six died alongside her.

Death became a regular experience at this school. The institution was designed to erase a culture, a language and a way of life to make way for Canada.  It ended up erasing entire human lives.

We don’t know where Frances is buried today. The Chapleau Cree First Nation have lovingly placed blocks of black granite throughout the forest here. Each one shows a dreamcatcher and the words “At rest with the Creator.”

Frances may be at rest. But we can not. Not until Canada remembers Frances. And the twenty-six other children that lie beneath the summer roses in the trees south of Chapleau.