Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask. boarding school survivors push for recognition in their lifetimes

William Caisse stands in front of a school where he now helps students with land-based learning. Caisse attended the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school for nine years. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
William Caisse stands in front of a school where he now helps students with land-based learning. Caisse attended the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school for nine years. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

William Caisse thinks about dying more often than he'd like.

"I could go at any time," the 72-year-old said calmly, gently rocking on his living room armchair.

Caisse spent nine years at a boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask., a school that about 1,500 children from northern Saskatchewan — mostly Métis — were forced to attend from the 1860s to the 1970s.

He said he's never received compensation or official recognition as a survivor from any governments.

He lost his sister five years ago. He says more than 20 others who went to the school died in the past year.

Caisse wants recognition before he dies.

"We need this thing settled before we bury any more of our survivors. It hurts every time we do."

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Of the children who attended, between 600 and 700 are still alive, according to Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S).

While many of these survivors say they suffered abuse and discrimination at the school, advocates say historic, inconsistent government policies have held them back from receiving compensation.

"We went through the same thing like the other schools," said Caisse, who's a band member of the English River First Nation.

"We need it done ASAP."

Inconsistent policies

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described the schooling in Île-à-la-Crosse as "long and complex."

The Catholic church ran a day school there in 1847, which became a boarding school by the 1860s. That pre-dates the federal residential school system, which was running by the 1880s, which is why the school isn't technically considered a residential school.

Children there, however, were also discriminated against, neglected and forced to stop speaking their languages such as Cree and Michif.

The MN-S says both provincial and federal governments funded the school at different points.

Submitted by Métis Nation-Saskatchewan
Submitted by Métis Nation-Saskatchewan

Vacillation between Canada and the provinces about who was responsible for the Métis led to several inconsistent policies, including complicated funding for Île-à-la-Crosse, according to the Métis National Council (MNC).

MNC president Cassidy Caron said this erratic history is a big reason Île-à-la-Crosse survivors have been left out of past mediation such as the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which funded commemoration and healing efforts, along with individual compensation for survivors.

"Our survivors continue to go unrecognized. It's almost as if their truths don't matter as much as other students'," said Caron in an interview with CBC News.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Though the 2016 Daniels decision officially recognized the federal government has a constitutional responsibility for Métis and non-status Indians, Caron said that historic back-and-forth plagues progress to this day.

"The Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school is a prominent example of the federal government and the provincial government not working together for the betterment of our people."

Compensation for the community

Louis Gardiner has never understood why he's not considered a residential school survivor.

"The agenda was the same: take the culture out of the child," Gardiner told CBC News on the old school grounds in Île-à-la-Crosse.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Gardiner shared experiences similar to those of residential school survivors.

He was abused. He wasn't allowed to speak Michif. The church staff publicly humiliated his brother when he wet the bed.

Born and raised in Île-à-la-Crosse, Gardiner hopes the story of his home changes for his 16 grandchildren.

"We want a healthy community. We can do the healing ourselves," he said.

Many survivors want to see compensation go to the community, including a new healing centre to help those with addictions. Gardiner also wants better Métis programming in schools.

"All we ask from the government and the Catholic church is give us the tools."

Decades-long push for recognition

Survivors like Gardiner have advocated for compensation and recognition since the boarding school was excluded from the IRSSA in the early 2000s. In 2019, Ottawa signed a Memorandum of Understanding which began slow-moving discussions addressing the history and solutions.

MN-S says it's time for the provincial government to show similar cooperation, so it's funding a proposed class action lawsuit against Ottawa and Saskatchewan. The lawsuit has yet to be certified.

"Through funding this, we're hoping that — ethically and morally — the province of Saskatchewan will step up and come to the table," said MN-S vice president Michelle LeClair.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

In an email, a spokesperson from the Saskatchewan government said it "recognizes residential schools are a tragic chapter in Canada's history."

In relation to the boarding school, the statement said "the Government of Saskatchewan did not own or operate this facility. Because the litigation with respect to it remains before the courts, the government cannot comment further at this time."

In its 94 calls to action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon "the parties, and in particular, the federal government to work collaboratively with plaintiffs not included in the IRSSA."

'We are still here'

The community itself has already recognized survivors with a monument by the lakeshore.

A bronzed plaque on a smooth boulder includes a piece of writing titled "We are still here."

"It means we are resilient — that they haven't broken us," said Métis Elder Dorothy Dubrule.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

The Sakitawak Elders Group revealed this monument on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, in 2021. Sakitawak is the Cree name for Île-à-la-Crosse.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Dubrule and her brother, Jeff, went to the school.

"He really wanted recognition for the boarding school," she said.

"When I see this, I think, 'my brother would have loved that,' but he died in 2009."

To get recognition in her lifetime "would mean satisfaction in some way," she said.

"That we fought, and we won."

Sam Samson/CBC News
Sam Samson/CBC News

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.