So My Great Grandmother Was In A Residential School…

An old leather skin drum

I’d always known that I had First Nations ancestry in me. But for the longest time, it was nothing more than an obscure trivia fact. People wouldn’t expect that a white slice of bread like me would have Cree running through his veins (then again, most people wouldn’t expect the same white slice to be a Muslim convert either). So when I learned that my great grandmother had gone to a residential school, it brought the issue of my ancestry suddenly and uncomfortably close to me.

Truth and Reconciliation

This year, the Truth And Reconciliation movement in Alberta  brought to light many of the atrocities and evils of the residential schools. These schools set out to eradicate any remaining traces of Native culture from children, to the point where even speaking their language was punishable. This issue that I once thought so distant from me was now a part of me. And not only that, it made me tune into the reality of many First Nations people. It made me more sympathetic to them. When I was young, I and my friends would bash the problems that First Nations people had—they complained that our forefathers took their land from them, but didn’t they agree to give it in the first place? Why couldn’t they just move on? Why couldn’t they just be part of our culture, instead of trying so hard to separate from it? “Just move off the reserve”, “Oh look, another drunk Indian”, “Why do they get to go to school for free?”, “These aren’t our problems”. What I was asking for was complete assimilation.


My great grandmother was named Matilda, but everyone called her Koko (from the Cree word “kokum” meaning grandmother). She had attended a residential school in St. Albert, from Grade 1 to 8. She grew up on a prosperous farm, with plenty of vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy. At the school, she would get one cup of milk per day, and only got fruit once a year. It was forbidden to speak her Cree language, as it was with all First Nations children. Many of the nuns were strict too. If you made a mistake or spoke out against them, they made you kiss the floor. Koko had to kiss the floor a lot. You weren’t allowed to leave your bed at night, even if you had to pee. If you peed your bed, you would have to sit in it as punishment. Koko’s sister, my Great Aunt Bertha, was kicked out of the school in Grade 9. One of her classmates was served rancid meat, and Bertha took it to one of the nuns and threatened to take it to a higher authority. Through intimidation, my great grandmother grew placid out of fear of the nuns.

Thankfully, Koko had been spared some of the more horrific abuses to come out of the residential schools. Many weren’t. And through this experience, I’ve come to sympathize with the issues facing First Nations people—people I, inevitably, share a link with. So many are quick to say “Well, I didn’t take your land from you,” or “I didn’t put you in a residential school”, and I was once one of them. But this made me realize that it is our problem. Because as long as we keep ignoring it, or passing the blame, or just not caring about it, we are perpetuating the mistakes of the past.


My grandmother’s grandmother was pure Cree. She didn’t speak English very well. She lived on a reserve, where she sewed her own moccasins, tanned hides, and also made her own medicines. She was, I feel, one of the last of my ancestors to truly have a link to the earth, to this land. She did not pass down her knowledge to her children because she felt, to use a modern term, that her knowledge was obsolete. She felt there would be no place for such knowledge with the rise of professional doctors and the rapid growth of civilization in the early 1900s.

And I wish she had. I feel that her knowledge was deeply rooted in having respect for the land, something I feel is sorely missing from our society now. I got to see and hold her tanning tools, and was transfixed that I was holding the same dull metal and old wood that such ancient hands had once grasped with mastery. There is something both exciting and heartbreaking about knowing where you came from. Exciting in that you can add pieces to the puzzle that is your identity. Heartbreaking because so many of those other pieces are missing.

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