A photo taken by Community Archives shows a window display at Belleville Public Library with ‘Every Child Matters’ written on orange paper surrounded by blue, yellow and red handprints. The display is in recognition and solidarity with First Nations People after the discovery of indigenous children’s mass graves found at Kamloops Residential School.
Advocacy & News

How Non-Indigenous Allies Can Support Residential School Survivors

The search to discover the truth about Indigenous children who never made it home from Indian Residential Schools in Canada continues. As more unmarked graves of their young relatives are discovered, First Nation communities are at the forefront of pushing for accountability and justice.

This article discusses triggering topics related to the Indian Residential School system which some readers may find distressing. For any Indigenous People directly impacted, useful support/crisis resources have been included at the end of this post.

Indian Residential Schools were a government-backed forced assimilation policy that mandated, with no exceptions, that First Nations families send their children from age 3 to be “educated” at these church-led boarding schools. During the mid-1800s to the 1990s, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children attended these “schools” in Canada — 60% of which were run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Often in extremely remote areas to prevent children from being able to easily runaway and find their families; these “schools” were explicitly designed to eliminate Indigenous culture from Canada. By targeting children, this intentional action was developed to ensure Indigeneity would not be passed on to future generations. The government and church, in no uncertain terms, were active overseers and participants of genocide.

Lack of funding often created extremely poor conditions at these schools; sparse food and heating, overcrowding that enabled persistent disease spread, little to no medical/health care. Not to mention the depression that came from the forced absence of familial love; and the beatings and sexual abuse used as punishment if the children tried to remain connected to their culture or dared to defy restrictive rules. Even the Bryce report back in 1907 found that the mortality rate was abnormally high and that 90-100% of children suffered severe emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Indigenous communities have been speaking about this for decades, knowing that the estimated 4,000 – 6,000 residential school deaths attributed to neglect, disease, abuse, suicide and murder is vastly misrepresented. In one month alone, from May 27th to the end of June this year; 1,252 remains were discovered in unmarked graves on the grounds of four former “schools” — 215 children at Kamloops, 104 at Brandon, 751 at Cowessess and 182 at Cranbrook. This follows the 253 unmarked graves found in previous years at three other locations. If this knowledge is new to you, let it sink in for a moment — 1,505 unmarked graves were found in just 7 of the 139 Indian Residential Schools in Canada so far.

[Update July 13th] 160+ unmarked graves discovered at former site of Kuper Island School, BC.

Artwork by Chad L. Yellowjohn called ‘Finally Going Home’ shows an Indigenous child in traditional clothing, earrings and long braided hair looking up towards the surface (they are underground) where a small figure of an Indigenous person is digging into the soil with two Indian Residential Schools in the background. The child has a slight smile on their face as if they know they have finally been found. The art is in reference to the 1000+ children’s remains found on the ground of Canadian residential school.
‘Finally Going Home’ – artwork by Chad L. Yellowjohn

It’s now believed that the real total will likely be in excess of 15,000. This doesn’t include the numbers of missing children from the 350+ Native American Boarding Schools in the United States where they haven’t even begun searching the grounds of government/church residential schools.

There are approximately 80,000 Canadian survivors of these institutions alive today that deserve accountability and justice. Their families and communities that carry intergenerational trauma deserve healing. The children who didn’t get to become community members, language holders, ceremony keepers, parents and elders; they deserve coming home to a place of love, celebration and kindness. They deserve to know peace from now on.

As non-Indigenous allies, here’s how we can best support residential school survivors …

Celebrate, uphold and respect Indigenous success and joy. | Support Indigenous creatives, brands and initiatives so that your knowledge of them isn’t continuously trauma-based (which itself perpetuates harm). Start with:

  • Nehiyaw Creative (@nehiyaw.creative on IG – artist based in Ontario)
  • Notorious Cree (@notoriouscree on IG – traditional Hoop Dancer, activist & TikTok star)
  • Urban Native Era (clothing brand and design)
  • Chief Lady Bird (@chiefladybird on IG – artist based in Rama First Nation)
  • Jana Schmieding (@janaunplgd on IG – comedian, actor, writer and star of Rutherford Falls, a must-watch tv show)
  • Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle (artist and clothing/jewellery/hat designer)
  • 12 Indigenous Beauty Brands To Support

Continue to educate yourself and your family and friends about the (ongoing) history of Indian Residential Schools. | Useful resources include:

Join and amplify demands for meaningful action. | Follow and donate to Indigenous-led organizations that will help you navigate what action/s are appropriate to take:

For more ideas and information, you can read TNs previous post on this topic ‘Effective Allyship: What You Need To Know If You’re Learning About Indian Residential Schools For The First Time’

A photo by GoToVan taken on May 30th 2021 of an Orange Shirt Day memorial march for the recently discovered remains of 215 Indigenous children found in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Orange Shirt Day memorial march (May 30th 2021) – photo by GoToVan

While numerous children died as a result of sickness and disease, it does not negate the cruel mistreatment carried out by the Canadian government, Roman Catholic Church (and other denominations). Allowing these diseases to run rampant was an example of one of their many abuses. They kept the children malnourished, un-cared for and in filthy conditions. They are the ones who subjected these children to a physical and mental state that left them unable to fight off illness and pain. They showed no kindness, even in death, by concealing the bodies of Indigenous children in unmarked graves. They are the ones that created, organized and maintained systemic, racial and cultural violence.

However, if we don’t stand up for real, Indigenous-led and approved truth and reconciliation; we are the ones allowing the roots of White supremacy and colonial lies/destruction to spread and continually disregard Indigenous voices. We have a choice, and I hope we all choose the right side of history — the one that works with First Nations and Native American People to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.


Further Info/Support: 

First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310


Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Hotline: 1-866-925-4419


Crisis Services Canada: 1=833-456-4566 or text 45645

Accountability For The Roman Catholic Church’s Role In The Residential School System: Urgent Actions Needed Immediately – Active History

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39 thoughts on “How Non-Indigenous Allies Can Support Residential School Survivors”

  1. I really appreciate all this great information. While we can’t assume that all the unmarked graves were indigenous children, I would expect that the vast majority would be. Thank you for highlighting what I can do to support this population.

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    1. There are some oral stories about these sites that do mention some adults being buried but I assume too that the vast majority of them will be Indigenous children as this, sadly has proven to be a common practice at these “schools”. The pain and trauma this whole era caused First Nations communities is immeasurable — I hope all assistance needed to return their loved ones to them is provided. Thank you so much for reading and for being willing to support them.

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  2. Thanks for the brief on this issue. I still love Canada (I’m American) and through this tragedy, I hope those affected and impacted can have justice sooner rather than later. First Nations people need to be listened to and to be compensated in some manner.

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  3. Really informative post. I honestly had no idea about it. Maybe it is expected since I live in Greece and there are lots of things I don’t know about the history of the rest of the world. Anyway, I find it great that you collected all these info and actually propose things that can be done which can actually help! You did a good job here. Thank you!

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  4. I didn’t know about this … I did read something really quick about about graves nut didn’t know they were people (indigenous community) being killed. It’s so sad.. couldn’t imagine the traumas and problems many of these people have encountered. Prayers to all families involved and hopefully it won’t be repeated

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  5. Thank you for educating me on this. It’s such a tragedy and hopefully the families affected will get the justice and support they need. My heart goes out to all those affected. Thank you for sharing. Em x

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    1. I am thankful I could help educate in some small way. I hope that all Indigenous communities around Canada get the right justice and reparations — and that we all join in action to help this happen. Thank you so much for reading!

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  6. Thank you for this important post Molly – more conversations and discussions need to be had so a greater education can exist about Canada’s history with residential schools. It breaks my heart everytime I hear the news, and I will definitely look into all the resources and ideas you’ve put above as a way to help as allies. Thank you for this great post.

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  7. Thanks for sharing such an informative post, there are loads of links that are useful to come back to. It’s such a tragedy to read about, but so important to highlight too.

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  8. This is so informative and it has educated me on this issue! Thank you for sharing this. It is so sad to hear that people are treated like this and it is important to speak up about it!

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  9. As a Canadian I’m ashamed that residential schools were just very briefly touched on in high school. On July 1, Canada day, more people wore orange to support indigenous peoples than the traditional red and white for Canada. It’s just disgusting that the government and catholic church are not doing enough to fix things. People who brush this off like, oh they weren’t necessarily murdered, they died from tuberculosis….well how many bodies have been discovered buried at your high school? How many buried bodies are considered acceptable? It’s very troubling. Thank you for this article and all the resources you’ve provided.

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    1. The way the treatement and deaths of Indigenous children at these schools is being rationalized is disturbing. As you said, finding bodies like this on a school’s grounds cannot be excused or brushed off — this was genocide. If people read this and still do nothing, the apathy ends up doing the work colonisation always wanted — literally rendering Indigenous People invisible. I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on this as a Canadian and that more people wore orange on July 1st!

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  10. Thank you so much for sharing more about this and highlighting this tragedy so that more people can know of it! I have been reading about it in the news and it’s completely terrible, but knowledge will help. I hope for justice!

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  11. I’d seen this topic a lot in the news recently – because of the recent graves that had been found – but I didn’t know an awful lot about it. Thankyou for the information, It’s such a terrible tragedy

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    1. It’s good that news is spreading, this really is one of those events that needs to be widely heard because accountability relies on transparency. If this gets silenced, the people involved won’t ever have to face justice — and they must. Thank you for reading!

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  12. Thank you for bringing together all of these resources on this horrific situation. I live in the UK, but I have a Canadian friend who’s been telling me about this, and I’ve seen news reports of what’s happening. I’m glad to find an article that points me towards actions I can take to support Indigenous People.

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    1. I am relieved to hear that news coverage about this unfolding story is making it’s way to the UK (and beyond). Thank you for reading and being willing to take some action for Indigenous People — every bit you can do will help.

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  13. Thank you for educating us on this tragic issue. I’ve read about this on the news but I know many people have no idea what has been happening.

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    1. The history books have whitewashed and left much out about the realities of colonialism and the churches role within it. Those who don’t know or who are new to this now have the opportunity to support the voices of those seeking justice. Thank you so much for reading!

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  14. Thank you for shedding light on such a harrowing ongoing tragedy. I first saw the news on YouTube when browsing and my heart absolutely broke when I heard of the mass unmarked graves uncovering. Since then I have been looking up more information to stay on top of this because I want to be educated. I have family over in Canada and the past few phone calls have surrounded the topic of how Indigenous people need justice and this simply cannot be swept under the carpet . One of my Grandpa’s best friends is Squamish and he has been helping him to pass out flyers and pamphlets calling for more to be done with information on staying active and engaged at this time. Thank you for sharing ways to support and stay knowledgable, will definitely be watching We Were Children.

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    1. It is great that you’re having conversations about this with your family in Canada and that you’re all open to doing that. I also think the fact your Grandpa is helping his best friend spread awareness is amazing. Your Grandpa’s friend deserves support for the emotional labour he is doing and the fact he is getting it in this way is so encouraging. I really appreciate you sharing your comment as it shows people how we can step up in meaningful ways.

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