ATHABASCA — Over 20 First Nations making up Treaty 8, including Bigstone Cree Nation, are calling upon the federal government to get serious about Indigenous issues following the Sept. 20 federal election.
Grand Chief Arthur Noskey said in a Sept. 7 interview, it's past time for the government to stop making promises and start acting upon them and it is even more pressing as more and more unmarked graves are discovered on the sites of former residential schools.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made 94 recommendations to the federal government,” Noskey said. “But there's inaction, hardly anything is being done; nobody's really looked at addressing it as a government.”
He said changes need to be made to the Indian Act because when the treaties were signed to include healthcare and education, the education was supposed to be by choice.
“People wanted a choice, but they did not agree to the residential school system," he said. “For the parents that sent their kids off, they didn't know what was happening. and when the kids visited, apparently it was so shameful that they couldn't share it with their parents of what was happening there so, they kinda endured in silence.”
Which party is in power is irrelevant, Noskey said. What matters is how things are going to be different.
“It doesn't matter who's gonna be at Parliament, but what are the indicators that there's gonna be change, it's gonna be different going in, that there's going to be (resolution),” he said. “That's what they need to ask and that's what I've been saying to the parties, ‘Where and how are you going to change (your) party platform wording to adjust this going forward?’”
Treaty 8 is Canada's largest treaty, taking up area in northern Alberta and northwest Saskatchewan along with portions of B.C. and the Northwest Territories. There were 11 Residential Schools within Treaty 8 territory — Assumption (Hay Lakes) in Assumption; St. Martin’s Roman Catholic in Demarais; St. John’s Anglican in Wabasca; Fort Vermillion had St. Henry’s; St. Bernard’s was in Grouard and St. Bruno’s in Joussard; Fort Chipewyan had Holy Angel’s; Slave Lake had St. Peter’s; St. Augustine was in Smoky River; Calais was home to St. Francis Xavier; and St. Andrew’s was in Whitefish First Nation.
“What we've been hearing and finding is that if a baby's born out of wedlock, then that baby has to be buried outside the cemetery,” said Noskey. “Same thing with suicides. So, the question of the abuse that happened in there, and kids being born while in care of the residential school process, then where are those kids buried?”
They are also asking all churches to release information and records to assist in finding the missing children and for both the federal government and churches to accept responsibility in the genocide.
“I believe the churches and the government have the actual number of how many (children in residential and day schools) so if we can get that information, then that would be good,” he said. “But the other thing too, did they register a name? Or is it just a number? Because of a lot of survivors, when they're in the residential school, they weren't called by name, they were called by a number.”
Noskey is also calling upon the Alberta Government to recognize Sept. 30 as Truth and Reconciliation Day. The day was originally named Orange Shirt Day stemming from Phyllis Webstad’s book detailing how the beautiful orange shirt she wore to her first day of residential school was taken away from her and she was forced to assimilate with the other children to become one of those numbers.
“Although Canada has declared Sept. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and is now a federal statutory holiday, there cannot be reconciliation without action,” a Sept. 22 Treaty 8 press release signed by Noskey said. “This would involve full access to the truth, and the release of all related documents, as well as provisions for full supports in the mental health and healing of our survivors and those who have suffered the intergenerational trauma stemming from the Indian Residential Schools.”
Noskey added it’s also very disrespectful that the Alberta Government will not recognize Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday when the government played such a key role in the operation of Indian residential day schools.
“It shows the lack of respect and does not reflect ‘a path to reconciliation’ as outlined in their August 2018 publication. There cannot be reconciliation without restitution.”
The federal government has promised $27 million toward finding graves and the Alberta government announced $8 million, which Noskey said is a start, but he hopes that once the federal government is formed again, it will be set up like the COVID funding where the First Nations can bill the government after the expenses are incurred.
The other aspect is conducting forensics investigations on the remains that are found. Noskey said elders want the children reunited with their ancestral land but random forensics need to be conducted to rule out claims from deniers most of the children died from the Spanish Flu.
“They wanted to check on maybe a few here and there basically for cause of death because we hear everything and anything that goes back to 'It's the pandemic; the mass graves are because of the pandemic,’” Noskey said. "There's some truth to that extent but the Spanish Flu, the majority of the survivors of that pandemic were 12 years old and under. There were quite a few adult survivors, but a high population of kids survived that pandemic. So, they can’t really blame that kind of thing.”
Noskey also wants the Catholic church to rescind the Papal Bulls of Discovery written in 1493 which he feels will finally force European descendants to come to terms with all genocide done in the name of the church.
“The Papal Bulls in the 1400s, that's how we believe that this came about,” he said. "We were basically ‘those Indians, they're animals, they're not human, you can either kill them, annihilate them, or Christianize them.’
“If there's anything that I want the pope to say – I don't want an apology from him – I would ask him to make another Papal Bull because Canada seems to react to your Papal Bulls. Make a Papal Bull that says, ‘Those Indians own those lands, they have treaties, honour them.’”
Noskey said a search will start in October in Grouard and the task force is overseeing who will be hired to perform the ground penetrating radar as well as supervise the work because they fear any help from government and churches would contaminate the findings.
“One of the stories that really bothered me listening to the elders was this elder saying, ‘I made a vow in the residential school while I was there to the priests and nuns that I said within my heart, ‘You will never make me cry again,’” said Noskey. "So, when he came out, residential school’s over, he's having children, is having grandchildren and only when he started having grandchildren, he realized that he was unattached emotionally to his family. So, the residual effects are there right up to the third generation.”