A local cycling group helmed by Connie Hergott recently approached Nipissing First Nation (NFN) about riding in honour of residential school survivors and the 215 children found at a former school in Kamloops, B.C.
“This ride is more than just hopping on our bikes and heading out on the land,” Hergott emphasized. “This is a RIDE for leaning in and learning the ugly truth and impact of colonization in Canada.”
Hergott elaborated, explaining the “RIDE” includes “recognition, respect and steps you can take towards Reconciliation.”
“Inquiring, information, and understanding intersectionality and colonial impact and support to indigenous friends, families, and communities.”
The acronym continues, with “donating, discovering truth, dignity and making a difference.”
Concluding the RIDE philosophy further requires “education, empathy, and demand for equality for Indigenous people and community in all systems in Canada.
“The cycling group has prepared for this RIDE by learning more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action,” Hergott said, adding the group “is making a donation to NFN to purchase a gift for residential school survivors.
About twenty people participated in the event, mostly youth, many wearing orange shirts with “every child matters” emblazoned across their chests.
They wheeled onto the grounds of the Residential School Memorial in Duchesnay just after two, ready to embark on their ride.
First, they gathered upon the grass beside the memorial to listen to June Commanda, a long-time NFN band councillor and residential school survivor.
She opened by explaining that many within the community have felt devasting effects from being taken to residential schools.
About ten years ago, the community had about 15 people who had survived the system, whereas at one point, the community was home to 83.
“Many have passed away,” Commanda said. “There are very few of us left,” living on Nipissing First Nation.
She was seven years old when an Indian Agent brought her to the residential school in Spanish. Her sister was five, and her brother was taken when he was six.
“For years and years, I couldn’t mention that he was even there,” she said, “but I want to tell you about his experience there.”
She detailed how at her school, the boys and girls were housed in different dorms, which separated her and her brother for years. Her sister was also kept separate from her, sleeping in a different room, and eating at a different table during mealtime.
“When you see all the old pictures and all the boys are wearing suit coats, that was their winter clothes.”
They “were very poorly dressed” in “ill-fitting clothes,” she said, which did little to warm them through a Spanish winter.
“Some of the kids there were four years old,” Commanda recalls.
She could never speak to her brother, the only time she could see him was at church—“the boys on one side, the girls on another—” until one day after Christmas she stopped seeing him there as well.
As groups of boys walked along the road on their way to the day’s work, she would “run to the fence” to look for her brother, “but he was never there.”
One day in April, while working in the laundry—“we all had jobs”—she heard news from an older girl that her brother was sick in the infirmary.
Her mother was living near Jocko Point at the time and was also unaware of her son’s sickness.
Commanda explained how “one day she sees this man in a long coat and a hat” coming down the road toward her mother, with a child by his side.
“As they got closer,” Commanda continued, “she realized it was the Indian Agent, and the little boy was my brother.”
Commanda emphasized that her mother was never made aware of her son’s sickness, “and it was a total surprise that they brought him home.”
His illness was pneumonia, and one of the residential school workers explained that while in the infirmary, the boy kept saying that “he didn’t want to live, he didn’t want to eat,” Commanda said.
“He just wanted to die.”
This worried the staff enough, Commanda surmised, “that they called an Indian Agent to come get him” and return him home.
While at the school, “we were powerless,” she emphasized. As were the parents from stopping Indian Agents from taking their children.
‘If they were going to take your children, you were powerless,” she said. “You couldn’t do anything. They were the law.”
The Indian Agents “ruled over everything we did.”
Life was harsh within the schools, and for Commanda, “loneliness was the worst thing. You could hear the kids crying at night for their moms.”
Conditions were poor, the food meagre, and the rooms cold. Commanda credits the cod liver oil “which we had to eat everyday” with keeping them alive.
“Loneliness, hunger and cold. That’s what we had. And no love.”
She remembered crying after learning of her father’s death. “All I got was a slap in the head and was told to go on.”
“There was no compassion, and no love. And nobody could comfort other kids.”
The harsh conditions kept one thought on top of mind: escape. Commanda and her friends would plan and dream of running away, heading down the rail line, hoping that iron path would reunite them with their parents.
She was eight at the time, “and that’s all you think about,” escape, until she was finally reunited with family when she was twelve. Her sister was ten.
After Commanda’s harrowing story, most of the children found their way to the memorial for a closer look, taking in the names listed on the monument—Commanda, Couchie, Penasse, and many others.
Perhaps some noticed the quote from Duncan Campbell Scott, from the Department of Indian Affairs, who ran the residential schools from 1913 to 1932.
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” Scott said, his words etched on the community’s memorial for all to read.
“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic."
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.