Canada

The search for graves—and truth—at a Nova Scotia residential school

For decades, former students of the Shubenacadie Residential School shared accounts of deaths and at least one burial at the facility

It is a moment that never left Isabelle Knockwood, an emotional recollection she shared with her nephew several years ago, as they came across each other by chance walking the former grounds of the residential school at Shubenacadie, N.S.

As they stood atop a hill where the brick school once stood, she summoned a vivid memory from her time at the institution, when she woke at night to see five or six girls standing in long flannel nightgowns at one of the school’s dormitory windows. The girls hushed her, fingers to lips, and Isabelle followed their eyes to a light in the field down below. 

“They were watching a parade of nuns digging and burying somebody,” says Alan Knockwood, also a survivor of the school from Sipekne’katik First Nation. “It was a midnight burial.”

Then suddenly, the girls heard footsteps on the stairs. They scattered back to their beds under threadbare covers.

Isabelle, who died last year at 89, witnessed the scene in the 1940s, specifically recalling that she thought a boy was buried there, says Knockwood. “That year, they didn’t lose any girls, but they lost six or seven boys,” he recalls her saying. “When she told me that she was on the verge of crying. It brought up trauma for her. All I could do was hug her. Just hold onto her.” 

Knockwood, who is 68, recently relayed his aunt’s eyewitness account on the edge of that same field, where an investigation is now underway to determine whether there is burial evidence on the former grounds of the Indian Residential School that was attended by more than 2,000 First Nations children from across the Maritimes.

The federally-funded school was run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth from 1929 to 1956, and later by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary sect of the Catholic Church, until it closed in 1967.  

The discovery of unmarked graves on the former grounds of residential schools—200 in Kamloops, B.C.; 751 in southeastern Saskatchewan and 160 on Kuper Island in B.C. in just the last few weeks—has brought renewed urgency to other First Nations communities in Canada to locate and identify unmarked burial sites on the former lands of the notorious institutions. 

In response to public outcry following the discovery, the federal government pledged $27 million to help communities with the effort. But some, like Sipekne’katik First Nation in central Nova Scotia, aren’t waiting around for the cash to start flowing. At the request of the community, two archeologists began searching the former grounds of the Shubenacadie school on a hot Saturday morning in early June, using magnetic surveying tools and ground-penetrating radar. 

Archeologists Roger Lewis, the curator of Mi’kmaq cultural heritage for the Nova Scotia Museum, and Dr. Jonathan Fowler, an associate professor from Saint Mary’s University, are leading the survey effort. 

“I have an understanding for a lot of the pain and trauma that a lot of people are feeling,” says Lewis, himself a survivor of the school. Local community members came to him, he says, after hearing Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation discovered graves in Kamloops. Some were crying; some were angry, he says. “This is my way of helping them deal with that. We’re the ones that can hopefully provide answers for them.”

As the survey work began, other survivors and community members drove up the gravel route known as Indian School Road to pay tribute and make tobacco offerings. They passed a makeshift monument to the Kamloops graves—orange ribbons tied to trees and stuffed animals secured to the guard rail—up to the hill where the brick school once loomed over the landscape. 

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation pay their respects to the survivors and victims of the residential school system in Shubenacadie, N.S. on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation pay respects to survivors and victims of the residential school system in Shubenacadie, N.S. on July 1. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Alan Knockwood was there to stand in solidarity and offer support. A former U.S. Navy medic and foster-father to 44 children over his life, Knockwood is a pipe carrier, a sacred role that involves calling in spirits for a ceremony, healing or teaching. 

His Aunt Isabelle’s poignant account corroborated stories he’d already heard. Sharing it, as she did with him, helps Knockwood let it go. “You can’t hang onto that kind of horrible thing if you want to heal,” he says. “You can drop it and let the creator take care of it.”

At the edge of a hay and corn field where the land is now being scanned for human remains, the sounds of Knockwood’s childhood came rushing back to him. Girls laughing on the swings. Boys re-enacting cowboy-and-Indian movies they were sometimes allowed to watch. The crack of the strap that once left Knockwood’s small hands so swollen that his cousin Ivan spoon-fed him his supper. The clang of the lid of the trash can where one nun left treats wrapped for the boys on garbage duty to find: a piece of chicken or a brownie. 

He spent four years there, surviving only after what he describes as a stroke of sheer luck.  

Knockwood had arrived at the school in 1960 at age six. He spoke Mi’kmaw, his first language, as well as English. His mother had been sent to Boston for treatment for tuberculosis and was unable to care for him. His grandfather, having suffered several heart attacks, wasn’t well either. 

From its founding in 1930, the school suffered from poor construction, poor maintenance and overcrowding, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation student memorial at University of Manitoba. In 1934, a federal inquiry was held into the flogging of 19 boys—beatings that a doctor testified left some children with permanent scars, but the inquiry judge, J.A. Audette, found the boys got what they deserved. 

“The punishment was quite reasonable and adequate under the circumstances and in no way excessive,” the Halifax Herald wrote in a summary of the outcome, published in Isabelle’s book Out of the Depths about the residential school. 

The judge’s rationale appeared rooted in the idea that corporal punishment of the sort meted out in English schools helped build the British Empire. Isabelle wrote: “If the strap was good enough for the ‘big men’ who built the British Empire then it was obviously good enough for Indians, who Audette said, ‘are children having human minds just emerging from barbarism.’” 

Standing on the footprint of the school grounds, Alan Knockwood shudders as he remembers slipping and falling once, and a nun mistaking his gasp of pain for words spoken in Mi’kmaw. She grabbed him by the ear: “This guy is speaking the devil’s language again,” he recalls her saying. The priest took out his heavy leather strap with the woven handle, Knockwood recalls, and whipped Alan’s hands, 10 times on each. 

The cruelest—yet most redemptive—time at the school came when he was 10. He was busing tables in the dining hall, and had been carrying a stack of Melmac bowls when he suddenly collapsed in pain. As he clutched his side screaming, the nun kicked him over and over again. “Get up. Get up.”

“She’s killing Alan,” the other boys ran screaming to the priest.  

The priest took Knockwood to see a doctor in a nearby town. He was found to have acute appendicitis, so he was rushed to the hospital in Truro for emergency surgery. The night before Knockwood was to be discharged back to the school, his grandfather arrived and spoke to the doctors and nurses. 

“I can remember them all turning their backs so my grandfather could walk out, carrying me,” Knockwood says. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d be dead.” 

Eventually, when the RCMP came looking for him, his grandfather happened to be in the dooryard cleaning his guns. “Quick, run upstairs,” Louie Knockwood told his grandson. Knockwood ran and hid under the bed. 

The RCMP demanded Knockwood go back to the residential school but Louie was firm. “There’s a school up the road,” he said, clicking his guns back together. “He’s not going back there.” 

That was that. The Mounties turned and left. 

“Pure luck. Pure luck,” Knockwood says softly, shaking his head. “That’s all it was, was pure luck. Or I would’ve been in the field down there.” 

***

In addition to his Aunt Isabelle, Knockwood’s older brothers and sisters attended the school in the 1940s. In her acclaimed book, published in 1992, Isabelle wrote about the beating of a friend, the memory of which plagued her for the rest of her life as she overcame addiction, reconnected with her culture, obtained a university degree and accepted an honorary doctorate from Saint Mary’s University.

It was mealtime, Isabelle recalled, and she saw her friend Nancy Lampquin, age 12, hide spinach in her pocket. A nun on the girls’ side yelled at Nancy to put the greens back on her plate, Isabelle wrote. They called the nun “Wikew” behind her back—“fatty” in Mi’kmaw.

“The nun was yelling ‘Swallow it, Nancy, swallow it.’ Nancy was trying to stop crying so she would be able to swallow, but she couldn’t. Wikew kept shovelling the food in her mouth and hitting her lips with the spoon. Blood and tears and mucus mixed with the greens and Wikew just kept shoving the food in Nancy’s mouth until her cheeks were bulging,” Isabelle wrote. 

“Nancy’s eyes began to roll and she seemed to be losing consciousness. Wikew finally took her by the hair and rubbed her face in her plate.

“Nancy was led out by two girls,” Isabelle continued in her book. “She was barely able to walk. Her head was bowed and a mixture of tears and blood was streaking down her face. Her mouth and cheeks were badly swollen and her lips were purple.

“I never saw Nancy alive again. The next I heard of her, she was in the infirmary on the third floor.”

While researching her book, Isabelle examined the school register and found an entry against Nancy’s name: “Very delicate and sick for almost a year. Died,” it said. The death is listed as July 29, 1940. She was buried at the cemetery on the nearby reserve. 

Nancy’s is one of the 16 recorded deaths at Shubenacadie Residential School, though Alan Knockwood says survivors and elders in the community have counted at least 138. 

Unlike some former residential school sites in Western Canada, there’s no official cemetery associated with the Shubenacadie facility, says Jonathan Fowler, the Saint Mary’s University archeologist who is surveying the site. Part of the research will involve returning to those records and accounts for the locations of the graves of the 16 recorded deaths. “We really have to start from zero,” he says, adding that it may be months before the findings are announced. “There’s a definite sense of urgency here but we’re proceeding in a very systematic fashion.”

Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack says the prospect of a similar discovery to Kamloops is difficult to contemplate, but the site must be fully assessed. “Ultimately, I’m looking to start to heal our people and break that vicious cycle that we’ve had going on for generations and just have a better way forward for our kids,” he says. 

To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has identified names or information of more than 4,100 who died of disease or accident at over 150 Indian Residential School locations, many of them buried in unmarked graves. The number is likely much higher due to shoddy record keeping and poor document survival. Justice Murray Sinclair, the former judge who led the commission, told the New York Times he believes the number to be more than 10,000.

Scott Hamilton, an anthropologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., who authored a report for the TRC titled Where are all the children buried? said at times residential schools dealt with many sick children at once; had limited medical and diagnostic capacity; were overcrowded with kids who were society’s most vulnerable – not unlike the tragic numbers of deaths in nursing homes due to COVID-19, he points out. “The Department of Indian Affairs was universally reluctant to send deceased students home for burial,” Hamilton wrote in his report. 

But it was the unmarked graves found in Kamloops that for many people finally captured the horrifying legacy of Canada’s residential school system, says Dr. Hamilton. “It’s kind of mobilized us to grapple with that painful reality in a way, from my perspective, that the Canadian public hasn’t really confronted,” he said.

“It begs the question of all of us looking from the vantage point of the 21st century: ‘How in the hell could people think this was a good idea?’”

 Aurea Sadi, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, told Maclean’s the archdiocese is not aware of any remains being buried on the site of the former Shubenacadie Residential School.  

The day after the survey work began on the former grounds of the school, Archbishop Brian Dunn gave a sermon offering an apology and support for the ongoing search for unmarked graves. He said all archival records held by the archdiocese were forwarded to the TRC and Department of Indian Affairs in 2008. 

Archbishop Dunn reiterated past apologies, including one from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic religious order that operated the residential schools in Shubenacadie, Kamloops, southeast Saskatchewan and others. The Oblates apologized in 1991 for their role in attempting to assimilate Indigenous people, and the physical and sexual abuse that occured at residential schools.

He spoke of how the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, which staffed the residential school in Shubenacadie, apologized at a TRC hearing in 2011. 

He also noted that Archbishop Austen-Emile Burke gave an apology in 1992 in Indian Brook and Millbrook in 1993 for the damage caused by the residential school in Shubenacadie. 

“On behalf of the archdiocese of Halifax and Yarmouth, I again apologize for the harm, violence and abuse caused in the operation of the residential school,” said Archbishop Dunn on June 6. 

***

Nearly two decades after Shubenacadie Residential School closed, Isabelle returned with her daughter and granddaughter to take photos of the dilapidated brick building. In 1986, she captured the dark stairways, the rusted bedsprings and mildewed mattresses, the infamous broom and soap closet, where children were once locked as punishment. Also: the graffiti on the wall where someone had scrawled “Burnt in hell, was prison for Indians.” 

 Two days later, a raging fire tore through the derelict school. 

When the embers cooled, she and a group of other survivors gathered to watch the demolition of the building, she wrote in her book. It was almost 50 years to the day since Isabelle’s parents had signed her residential school registration form. People cheered as the wrecking ball swung into the charred walls. As Isabelle watched, she wrote, she thought about her friend Nancy Lampquin and the last time she saw her alive. 

 A National Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at 866-925-4419.