In honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day, we spoke with Terri Cardinal, who headed up one of the community searches for the graves of children who went missing while attending an Indian Residential School.
As we approach the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we take you inside the ongoing quest to document the children who died in Canada's Indian Residential Schools system. Vinita speaks to Terri Cardinal, director of Indigenous Initiatives at MacEwan University, about the search she led to uncover the unmarked graves of those who perished at the Blue Quills Residential School in Alberta. It's deeply personal and emotional work for Terri, whose own father is a survivor of the school. Terri talks about what she found, how she felt, and what she hopes will come of it. She says the number of unmarked graves across the country is much higher than many of us could have imagined. And she says it’s important to keep shining a light on the rising numbers, especially with so many Canadians in denial about what really happened at these schools.
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This is an unedited and uncorrected transcript.
Vinita: More than 150,000 Indigenous children from across Canada were forced to attend Indian Residential Schools. As we know - many never made it home.
And now, there is an effort to find those children.
Today, as we approach Canada’s 3rd Truth and Reconciliation Day, we are joined by Terri Cardinal who headed up one of the many community searches for those who went missing.
Last summer, Terri’s team led oral history interviews with survivors and then conducted a five day search for unmarked graves at University Blue Quills in Alberta, the site of a former residential school. Terri has a deeply personal connection to the site and the work. Her own father is a survivor of the school. And Terri herself completed two degrees at University Blue Quills, which now occupies the land.
Terri says the number of unmarked graves at Blue Quills and at many former residential schools across the country is much higher than many of us could have imagined. And she says it’s important to keep shining a light on the rising numbers, especially with so many Canadians in denial about what really happened at these schools.
Terri is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 Territory. She is a PhD candidate in social work at the University of Calgary and also the director of Indigenous Initiatives at McEwan University in Edmonton. ,she but she took a one-year leave to head up the search.
This episode deals with traumatic issues.
So listeners, please take care.
oday. As we approach Truth and Reconciliation Day, we are joined by Terry Cardinal
Vinita: This episode deals with traumatic issues. So listeners, please take care.
Terry, thank you so much for being here and for spending the time With me today. I really appreciate it.
Terry: Thank you for the invitation.
Vinita: as you mentioned to me when we first spoke, this is really intense emotional work that you've done this past year. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like for you?
Terry: Yeah, for sure. Thank you for inviting me today to be a part of this podcast. over a year ago, I was encouraged to apply for a position with Blue Quills University for, the search for unmarked graves.
And I'll be honest, I was struggling with the idea [00:01:00] of having to go back home and do this work. the university now owned by seven First Nations and many of my family members attended that school, including my dad. And I wondered if I had the emotional capability to do some of that work. I do have a background in trauma my master's part of that was understanding and specializing in trauma, but more specifically with Indigenous People. And I was encouraged by community. And so I agreed to one year. And so my work at MacEwan University offered me the time to go back home to do this work for one year. And It's already passed. it's crazy 'cause I'm back at McEwen University and the past year has been It was difficult. I'm gonna be honest. It was difficult but it was rewarding and such an amazing learning experience. And I [00:02:00] know that I could only take on that work for so long. when I agreed to go back and do that work with Blue Quills, I was clear that the work that needed to be done didn't necessarily just focus on the search, that there was a bigger part to this project. And that was how were we, how are we creating opportunities for healing,
And connecting with survivors and their families, providing educational sessions offering healing gatherings throughout this project, ensuring that ceremony was part of the whole process and everything that we did. being in spaces and gathering oftentimes I got to sit with survivors and hear their stories. And it's not the first time that I've done that. I've done this work in some ways before and I have
been able to sit and witness survivor stories during the T R [00:03:00] c events that were leading into 2010. an Iindigenous person, as someone who's so closely connected to family members who attended those stories never gets easy
and they shouldn't in any way. Some were really tough where I did drive home. And a ball of tears. And it was driving back to Edmonton.
It was a two hour drive But I had to really process and take care of myself in, lifting those stories those sacred stories that were shared with me by our survivors.
Vinita: Can you tell us a little bit about the role of the residential school survivors and their families? Their role, knowing that part of it was to search for unmarked graves, but also to make sure that I integrated these stories,
But also that the stories is part of this.
Terry: Much like [00:04:00] a lot of the work that we do, we're always looking towards guidance from our elders and our communities, And in this project it was no different. It was critical that we were listening to survivors, we had to consult, with folks from the community, in regards to how to move along And so I was part of phase one, which was year one. And we did the first search because you have to understand blue quills and for people who don't know where blue quills is or the size of the land that blue quills sits on, it's on 240 acres of land. And so that five days search that we did in phase one only covered just over one acre. And so there is still a lot of area Even beyond those 240 acres that need to be looked at and addressed. And so our elders were part of the search process,
Terry: We had them lifting us up in ceremony [00:05:00] every morning and throughout the day. We had our knowledge keepers singing our traditional songs during the search. We had people taking care of one another and our search team. So we worked with the University of Alberta, the search indigenous led search team with Dr. Keisha Super, and we made sure that we also needed to take care of them. Their work is incredibly difficult.
And so involving them in our ceremonies in the morning and making sure that we were taking care of them after a long day out searching. And so we ensured that our survivors got to be part of that. And one of the, personal. Takeaways that I have from this was that my dad was part of that. I know that it was difficult for my dad to attend onsite at Blue Quills. And when I let him know what I was doing and what I had agreed to
He said, whatever you need, my girl [00:06:00] I'll be, there to come help you. .And he did share that, it would be difficult.
there was one day in particular in the morning where he, we had ceremony together and he shared openly with the group that he had a hard time sleeping that night, we were sitting in a teepee that morning,
In front of the school, directly in front of the school, and he said I, never thought I'd be sitting here. Lifting my pipe praying, for all of you and for this specifically. as we move through that ceremony, you really seeing this transition lift, but all of also this opportunity to Lift those stories and lift him up. And things shifted for him. And my brother and a colleague and friend got to interview my dad after that.
And so we have recorded his testimony of his experience at Blue Quills and and then he stayed. It was funny because he would show up the next [00:07:00] morning, really early at 7:00 AM with like coffee, just ready to visit with other
survivors who were coming on site. So throughout that we've had them involved throughout the process, whether that is also involved in the healing gatherings as well as the interviews.
we started sitting down with elders and survivors and recording their interviews with their permission so that we had them to assist us in the search. So it's more specifically, where are we searching? What are the areas that we need to focus on? Because on that first search, what most people don't know is that we had a targeted area that we were gonna start with. And when the survivors were coming on site, they .Told our search team to move to a different location.
And so we had to have our facilities maintenance people come in and mow different areas. And that's actually where we found majority of our reflections of [00:08:00] interest, was in the area that the elders were telling us to go. 'cause they have the stories they have the knowledge and they are able to guide us in the work that we need to do.
Vinita: you mentioned areas of interest. Can you tell us a little bit about what your team found?
Terry: I'll share a little bit about the terminology that we use.
We identified 19 reflections of interest and reflections of interest. The terminology is based on the fact that we weren't able to get a G P R search of a actual cemetery nearby. So there's terms that they use
as opposed to unmarked graves. and these were 19 hits that were analyzed by two analysts. And so there was other hits that were found, but if a second analyst, external analyst isn't seeing them, they're not considered a reflection of interest. And so we had 19 [00:09:00] Reflections of interest, which
essentially is an area that is shaped and looks like a, grave
In that area.
Vinita: Because we're talking about terminology,
I just wanna ask a little bit more about this, that your work really does involve documenting deaths at Indian residential schools and uncovering or, revealing unmarked graves. And I'm wondering if you can explain the difference, between the two.
we are understanding that there is a lot more deaths. Of, indigenous children at these schools as opposed to what data has been able to provide up to date,
right? and I'll give you some examples. So with Kamloops, the, data that has been shared thus far shows that there's 51 recorded deaths.[00:10:00] But they were the first, school that had findings shared publicly and there was 215. and as we are moving across the country, and we are seeing the release of data from the, the findings of unmarked graves. It's jumping and we've known this, I think this is the other thing is that Indigenous People have known, we've known that we have lost a lot of our children. we know because we heard the stories.
Shared in our communities. I've heard the stories in my classrooms, I did my first two degrees at Blue Cross University, and so it's an old Indian residential school.
I was likely in the classrooms my dad was in as a student. And so it was very much part of our education and it was actually the place where I was learning more about my dad,
And where I had to do a lot of my Healing work with my family because now I began to understand, because my dad didn't talk about his [00:11:00] experiences at Indian Residential School, at the dinner table, right?
Like it's not something that we would've been talking about at home. But even we think about labret. Labret released their fundings a few months ago and their recorded deaths were at 56 and they had over 2000 hits.
We have Cowess, which had nine recorded deaths, and then when they actually did their search, their findings to date were at 751
I think one of the really difficult things about this is that, we do have denialists who we are seeing popping up across the country
And there's many things that they are seeing that potentially there's no graves….that they may be also saying that boarding schools are good for us, for instance we learn new skills. You just hear these, outrageous things. And I think sometimes what I think about is that [00:12:00] it's, I really see it as an attempt to redirect the work that we are doing as indigenous people and to really, that we need to continue focusing on, the work that we are doing. But I think one of the teachings that I've learned with elders In the last year was when we are addressing, and this is a continued discussion, and each of the nations and the communities are having these discussions, with their community members as well. Is do we dig up these graves?
Terri: and that's a big
question. We have teachings in our culture that we don't do that. And whether we leave that be, or some are, some may choose to in other nations and have a different process. And the, there's also different people in each of these places that are doing searches are under different regulations too, whether
that they are on reserve land or [00:13:00] private land,
Vinita: I read your report, the Blue Quills report, the phase one report many times before I really started to understand, I. Some of the findings, which is we found these findings and now we don't know what the next step is.
And I, it wasn't an now I'm hearing you speak. I understand what you're saying is we don't know what the next step is because we need to be guided, not just by regulations, but as you say, by our elders, by survivors. What do people want to do? And that's going to vary from place to place.
You mentioned these denialists and These are folks who refuse to acknowledge the abuse and the deaths of indigenous. Children in residential schools. I'm wondering if you want to spend bit of time to briefly explain what their arguments are and then we can spend a bit of time refuting them as well.
Terri: I’ve heard and read a few articles and [00:14:00] media posts in regards to Denialists. That have been coming forward publicly, whether that be in the media, whether that they have been actually showing up to sites with shovels, which is wild.
That's just wild to me. one of the things that, when I think about this is that it's much like dealing with racism.
as an Indigenous person we have to constantly, we are constantly fighting against racism. We are also, it's it's so exhausting. It's emotionally draining.
And so when we have to, again, in some ways try to educate ,A group who very much is very rooted in their own biases and their beliefs. It's really tough. I think that one of the difficulties of this is that I've come [00:15:00] to understand in the work that I do in indigenous education and I work in a western institution. is that people get really unsettled and really uncomfortable with the truth. And it's especially those who are religious. Because the Indian residential schools were run by Catholic churches and many of the abuse and the harm that were caused in those schools were happened by priests and nuns.
So people will automatically get defensive, which is completely natural for humans to wanna defend something and that they believe in. I, get that. But. It comes to a point where it's just harmful, right? We have a community of folks who are really trying to. Grieve and mourn. And every time that we have a report being shared, we are going through that mourning. And as an indigenous woman, it's like how do we create these opportunities and resources and supports for our communities to move through this? rather than having [00:16:00] to put our our time and our energy into people who are denying truth, denying what is the truth,
In this country.
Vinita: So in simple terms, how do you as a researcher, as a scholar, as somebody who headed up a search for one year. Do you spend any time at all rebutting those claims?
Terri: I spend a lot more time. And where I've actually shifted my PhD research has been understanding end of life ceremonies.
And I speak to that because we understand that there is ceremonies in our culture are very important and there is processes of ceremonies that we have prior to. Leaving the physical world, there's ceremonies [00:17:00] that happen when we have transitioned and there's ceremonies that happen after. And I really feel having been a part of those, in some capacity over the last few years, that it creates opportunities for people to, to heal.
And we need opportunities for that in our communities. And so a lot of my focus has been Researching, a lot of our traditional knowledge practices,that we can share and continue to share in our communities to lift us up.
Vinita: So since you're talking about that, one of the things that's really beautiful, you've, some of your research involves actually making recordings and sharing freely some of the meditation ceremonies. And I think some of this you, you mentioned that you were the daughter of an Indian residential school survivor.
And that your connection to this is very personal.
You've been working with your father on this, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Terri: Yeah, so [00:18:00] my my family,
we created a film intergenerational resilience fee and, that was funded by the Downey Wind Jack Fund and it will be screened on October 2nd. And it's interesting 'cause we've We involved our, parents,
my, my mom and my dad and my siblings as well. So there's four of us, and then our children. And we had, some conversations around Indian residential school. But I think the overall piece was, and let's, not just talk about the trauma of Indian residential school because we know that
There's lots of resources out there for that. But we really wanted to speak about the love in our family.
And we wanted to speak about, 'cause my dad's wish has been to educate others and it has been to show people how beautiful we are. show them how, connected we are within our culture. And so this video, this [00:19:00] film that we created, really shares how we have come together as a family and how we have embraced our connections to culture and ceremony and how, We love one another. And how that actually we had to teach our dad how we had to teach our dad about love because love was one of the things that we're taken out of that was That was not in Indian residential school. Love wasn't present in those places. And so children weren't shown love, they weren't told I love you. And so my dad was there from the age of eight until he was 16. And so there's a large span of years where my dad didn't experience love as a child, I knew my dad loved me because he showed me. He loved me. He may not have told me he loved me, but he showed me, [00:20:00] and it wasn't until later as a young adult that I really started to, tell my dad, purposely, and this was after my own healing through and understanding Indian Residential School through my degrees, that I started telling my dad, I love you and just sharing with him in many different spaces how much that I loved him. And that I forgave him. I in some of the work that I've done with i r s survivors, there's much guilt and shame that comes with even though that they didn't do anything wrong, I. ,right? This wasn't their fault, but whether they went on to parent and haven't been able to show love to their kids that's not their fault.
And I know that
Part of that was my dad needed to hear that from us. And so this film, reflects on it, I also got to create an album, indigenous meditation album with my dad one track on there, which is called to my Father. [00:21:00] it's interesting because it was, we recorded the day after the Pope came to Edmonton.
and there was a lot of emotions happening within our indigenous communities. And you felt it. You felt it. I remember at one point feeling the heaviness of, just my dad, And so we got into the studio the next day and my dad didn't know I was recording this. he didn't know what I was gonna say to him. He knew we were recording, he just didn't know. And all I said, I'm gonna say something to you Dad,
And I want you to respond to me. And he said, okay. And I read him this piece that was created, by my, friend and colleague, Amber Dion who I also have a podcast with called Two CRE in a Pod. And so she created this to her own father who attended Blue Quill's Indian Residential School and had passed away a few years ago and it was so healing for us 'cause she got [00:22:00] to witness me
sharing that with my dad. And then my dad responded, to me in the Cree language. And one of the things that he says on that track, and this track is available and, free for anybody on any music platform is that and he says that it was you, my girl that taught me love. Because in this piece, I'm reminding my dad that I knew that he loved me and that I was thankful that he survived so I could experience love and that my children could experience love I'm so thankful for the amazing opportunities I've had so far with my dad and in this healing journey together.
Vinita: How is everybody not crying when you're doing this recording, it just
Terri: Oh my God. so
I did cry You can actually hear me. Every time I read it, I was crying. And
so when I recorded it, I asked to be alone in the studio, and it was one take. [00:23:00] So there wasn't multiple takes. .And there was a crack where I had to take a moment for myself. And so when I actually did it with my dad, I, he called me into the studio with me. And so he had the mic there and I sat in front of him and I read him this piece and I bawled, I bawled my eyes out
It was just so beautiful. And I still get teary eyed thinking about it because not many people get that opportunity. And I did.
Vinita: Yeah. And when you're talking about your co-host, your friend, your colleague who's witnessing it and how almost vicariously that healing is passed on to her. And I imagine we talked a little bit about your children, but I imagine that this has a great impact on your children as well.
Terri: So Daughters Ellen and Emma, they're 10 and 13. They're the youngest and, they're still home with me. They were part of this process with me.[00:24:00] I've been very open in terms of educating my children about Indian residential schools and sharing stories with them since they were small. it's just been part of, they just know it. And, so when we did the search, I took my kids outta school. And they were, with us in those ceremonies and they sat in and heard elders speak and share as well as when we had the gathering, the healing gathering, and we shared the public findings. They volunteered their time. My, my 13 year old, cooked in the kitchen for people. I always say like it's our children aren't too young to know about Indian residential schools. That this can be taught in a very appropriate way in our K to 12. And should be,
it should be taught because my 13 year old says knew about Indian residential schools, they would be more compassionate
And as children they get that. They understand that.[00:25:00]
Vinita: And sometimes children understand things that we, adults just don't. They see it very clearly you talk about the sacredness of these stories have been shared, with you and with others, by survivors and their families. What responsibilities do you feel comes with knowing and listening to these stories?
Terri: There is a huge responsibility. I think that part of my responsibility was even going back home and doing this work.
As Indigenous people, we have that responsibility to our ancestors. We have that responsibility to our future generations. I was given an opportunity to sit with People this past year and they shared with me things that they haven't shared with others. And part of that work was, Remaining connected to my own beliefs and, ceremony and prayer,[00:26:00] and ensuring that I was, lifting these stories up because in, in many ways we're honoring them. We're not helping them. That's a whole other, way of looking at things is, how do we honor our survivors because they survive things that many people don't survive.
And this happened across this country and so I'm always when I've been in spaces with them, whether that've been in groups or individually, I thank them for surviving. I thank them for surviving 'cause we're here. We're here today and we're able to now carry out this work educate and make sure that there's changes made,
Vinita: So when you think about the work that you did this past year, at Blue Quills, what do you see as the impact of the work you did, but also that others . Our doing and continue to do across the country.
Terri: I think that this [00:27:00] work is gonna take a really long time.
I think that the misconception is that we are gonna do a search for a period of time and then that's it. this work is, gonna take quite a few years. And involve a lot of consultation with indigenous people. And it's gonna need a lot of support. how are our allies supporting this work and what can they do?
I just heard this amazing lecture yesterday by a friend Dr. Raven Sinclair, and it was on racism, and she had sent it to me and she's Get some popcorn with this and I'm like, oh yes. I'm like, alright, So I'll, while my daughter's at soccer first thing at like Sunday, eight 30 in the morning, I'm listening to this lecture, but she talks about the myth of neutrality.
the myth that when we are neutral we are And we are silent. We're not actually being neutral, that we are siding with the power over [00:28:00] the powerless. And that's stuck with me
and I have done it where I haven't maybe spoken up for or spoken up and supported with somebody who is speaking up for something. And I think that In this situation where, we have Indigenous people leading really important work, we need our allies to be speaking up right now and not staying silent.
Going and addressing these denialists and educating them because that shouldn't always be our work. That shouldn't always be on us
We don't have time. We don't have time to do everything. And so
And I love that 'cause that really hit home And so if you see. Denialists out there, whether that be on social media, and in different spaces or your workspaces. 'cause these are happening in people's workspaces, It's important for people to respond to them [00:29:00] and to provide factual information. because it shouldn't always have to be us as indigenous people that have to continually educate fight. We do that enough in the systems that we work in.
Vinita: I love that there's no such thing as neutrality.
if you're remaining neutral in the face of power, that means you're siding with power.
Vinita: in simple terms, how do you rebut those who say that that the number of Indigenous children who died at residential schools is just
Just, I'm putting that in quotes, but
Is part of the standard mortality rate of children at that time?
Terri: when we are looking at, the recorded data from the recorded deaths, in Indian residential schools across Canada. We know that the numbers are greater than that. [00:30:00] And so with the searches that are happening and can, will continue to happen for many years, is that data is gonna change. but that process is gonna take some time,
what I'm hearing from you is that these searches are not about trying to. Prove something or show something, in black and white.
It's partly about healing. It's about intergenerational healing. It's about honoring and respecting indigenous children who died. And it's not really, to refute
something that you don't
to, to honor and respect those who went through this terrible . Process.
Yes, and I appreciate that because one of the hopes. For this work that I see it as being an Indigenous person who was leading a project for the search for Unmark Graves is how we are [00:31:00] creating opportunities for healing. We don't wanna fight and argue with Denialists. And if people are unsettled and uncomfortable with the facts and the truth that many indigenous children died in those schools, then that's on them. And that's something that they need to understand and really unlearn and process as an individual I teach as well, I teach in university. And oftentimes we see, students who may be coming in who They have very much privilege, but they don't necessarily have an understanding or an education of indigenous histories of peoples in this country. And there is a lot of questions that come with their response, their responsibility to even reconciliation where They're like it wasn't us that did that. [00:32:00] It wasn't our families that did that. So why do we have to make this right. the work of reconciliation isn't necessarily for, we're not there to make people feel bad. a to educate people and just, Hey, hear us out. This is, what happened. This is the truth. This is what has been missing and continues to be missing within our education systems is our stories that of our experiences in those schools and the impact that has had within our indigenous communities. And Let us take care of our people. And I think that oftentimes this even comes, and we see this with with non-indigenous folks who want to come and help.
And I they want to help Indigenous people. we don't need to be helped. Indigenous people don't want to be helped. We wanna help ourselves. And so how do [00:33:00] you play into that support as opposed to coming into this placing that you wanna help Indigenous people? There's one organization that is non-indigenous that speaks to using the a Cree term specifically of the ones who come to help. And it's just ooh. And it's Really Who, are you helping?
just get out of the way
Like we know what we're doing and I think that that, we know what. We're doing. We know the work, we know the education that needs to be shared. Let us lead that work
and come and support us and walk with us in that work. And let us create spaces for our indigenous people to to move through this [00:34:00] process. 'cause we are grieving. we are, what I've seen happen since the Kamloops released their media report is that we've seen a wave of communities move through some grief and loss processes where they didn't have the opportunity to do that. Children just didn't come home from that school. The people, families didn't know what happened to their children. Everything just was Silent, and then now you have answers. Now you have graves being found. Let people grieve. people. Be compassionate. Let people grieve, let people mourn their children, their family members. Let's be compassionate during this time and show our love to one another, as opposed to saying, Hey, that didn't happen, And so [00:35:00] hope is that people are more kind to one another and that they are more compassionate, and that we can support one another as human beings in this journey.
Vinita: Thank you so much.
Terri: Thank you.
Vinita: Thank you for taking all the time
to explain that.
Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks again to Terri Cardinal for sharing her time and her stories with us. And for sharing that final piece of wisdom: Speak Up … because silence is complicit. As Terri mentioned in our conversation, she has a podcast herself called Two Crees in a Pod. Go check it out.
And if you enjoyed the conversation today, please take the time to leave us a review and rate the podcast. And tell your friends and family about us. It really does make a difference.
Don’t Call me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. It was made possible by a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The series is produced and hosted by me: Vinita Srivastava.
Ateqah Khaki is associate producer.
Sound design and mixing by Rehmatullah Sheikh
Kikachi Memeh is assistant producer.
Our fabulous consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz.
And Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada..
And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called “Something in the Water”
Thanks for listening everyone - see you again next week.