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Everybody Has A Story - Karen Whitecalf: “Education is the key.”

Karen Whitecalf, project manager for the BATC's Acahkos Awasisak - Star Children initiative, says she believes education, communication and kindness are the keys to reconciliation.
star children Karen Whitecalf
Karen Whitecalf, the project manager for the event, taking in the day’s events Acâhkos Awâsisak - Star Children: A Gathering to Share Cultural Healing, held this past summer.

BATTLEFORDS — Karen May Whitecalf was born on Thunderchild First Nation, and her father and grandfather were both residential school survivors. In fact, as project manager for Acahkos Awasisak - Star Children, currently searching for missing residential school children, she received the enrolment list for Delmas’s St. Henri Residential School. Whitecalf was shocked to find her grandfather was the first student registered in the school. 

Her father and all 11 of his siblings were also residential school students, the Onion Lake Residential School specifically. Whitecalf’s father was only four years old and stayed until his escape 10 years later.

“There was a lot of unresolved traumas that he (her father) had, and we didn’t know, nobody knew about these traumas …” 

Whitecalf recounts the nights when her father would have nightmares, and his thrashing and screaming would wake the household. She and her siblings would rush into her parents’ room as their mother tried to calm him. 

“When my Mom would finally wake him up, he’d yell, ‘Get out of here, get out of here, go back to bed,’” Whitecalf recounted.

“My dad was a functioning alcoholic. He would work during the week, and on the weekend, he’d go through his benders,” Whitecalf said, adding that her father was emotionally absent. 

“I remember crawling on my dad, trying to hug him, and he’d just stare like a board. I remember his prickly beard, kissing him, but he didn’t respond.”

Her mother and maternal grandparents never went to a residential school, and her mother acted as the emotional centre of the family. While Whitecalf’s father was a devoted Christian, attending church every Sunday, her mother was deeply in touch with her culture. 

“It kind of balanced out our lives a bit. We had both influences,” Whitecalf said, balancing her father’s understanding of religion and her mother’s spirituality. Whitecalf attributes her leaning toward her own culture mainly due to her mother. Some of her siblings lean more toward the church, and some toward their traditional spirituality.

 “I feel more comfortable with my First Nation culture … instead of the church. “

When Whitecalf and her siblings went to school, they attended Turtleford Public School. She distinctly remembers when Thunderchild opened their own school on reserve, and the First Nation boycotted the public school.

“My father didn’t want us going to the First Nations schools, so he kept us in the Turtleford School. We were the only First Nations family going to school there. The first few months were just terrible for me.

“The racism was so bad. I was the only First Nations kid, so I was the only one they could pick on.”

Whitecalf made friends with some of the nearby farm kids, who somewhat accepted her. She was only in Grade 4 at the time.

“It kind of showed me that the non-First Nations people really did not want First Nations people to integrate with them. It showed that they didn’t accept me. It kinda gave me the strength to start standing up for myself.” 

Embarking on education

After Whitecalf graduated, she went to the University of Saskatchewan and began to practice her culture again, hoping to become a teacher. She realized she wasn’t prepared to be a teacher two years later.

“I didn’t have the self-confidence to stand up in-front of a classroom. I wasn’t ready yet. I just didn’t feel mature enough.” 

After she returned home to the Battlefords, Whitecalf went to business college before working for various First Nations organizations across Saskatchewan, including Indian Affairs, BATC, SIIT and as an executive assistant under then chief of the FSIN, Blaine C. Favel.

Eventually, Whitecalf began working at SIGA, and during her time in human resources, she was diagnosed with cancer of the sinuses, forcing her to take a year of disability. 

“That experience really solidified my faith in my culture. I started meditating. It gave my spirituality a really big boost. That’s what I learned through my cancer journey.

“My babies don’t even remember that year. But I always tried to make it positive, not to dwell on the negative,” Whitecalf said.

Her dream was to be the first female general manager of a casino in Saskatchewan. Then, when COVID hit in March 2020, she was laid off. In June, when the casinos re-opened, she found her job had been cut in a restructuring. The restructuring would have forced her back to the start of the organization after working there for almost nine years. Whitecalf refused.

Eventually, Whitecalf accepted a job with BATC. In June 2021, BATC offered a project to the directors, and she volunteered. SNC Lavalin offered ground penetrating radar services pro-bono because they were going to look for the missing kids at the Delmas and Battleford residential schools.

“This project kind of fell in my lap; I didn’t go looking for it. We just found each other, I guess,” Whitecalf said, who thinks that becoming the project manager for the initiative was more than a coincidence, proving that she was on the right path.

Before disturbing the possible graves, Whitecalf talked to BATC elders, and they told her a feast and pipe ceremony were required.

Trauma comes to light

“Searching for those kids, we realized what their traumas were, and I could relate them to my own childhood. I realized that those were my father’s traumas passed down to me. 

“When I was a young parent, I always said that my children wouldn’t see the trauma I saw. So, I raised my children differently. For instance, they never saw alcohol, there was no violence. I never hit my kids. I raised them with lots of hugs and lots of telling them that they were loved, which I didn’t get from my Dad. 

“He never talked about the residential school until my daughter was … 15, and they finally started talking about residential schools. My daughter asked me, ‘Mom, do you know any residential school survivors?’” And Whitecalf told her daughter that her grandfather was a survivor.

“I phoned up my dad, and I told him, ‘Nancy (her daughter) is doing a report on residential schools, and she was wondering if you would tell her your story.’ And he agreed. Me and three of my sisters heard his story.”

BATC’s Acahkos Awasisak - Star Children started searching for missing children when 215 bodies were found in a mass grave in British Columbia. The non-profit is a support group for all survivors of the Indian Residential School era and seeks to bring about education. Forty-four children lost their lives at the Delmas school, and their bodies were never located.

“But where are they? Where did they bury them?” Whitecalf questions. The organization has reached out to the Ministry of Highways to see if bodies may be buried beneath the highway. The Ridge plans to do ground-penetrating radar searches for missing children at the Battlefords Industrial School in 2023.

Whitecalf isn’t sure finding the final resting place of the missing children from Delmas Residential School will change anything.

“I don’t think it will make that much of an impact because we’re already starting to heal. If we do find them, we need to find them, we need to know where they are and what happened to them.” 

Whitecalf has dreams of an interpretive centre where the school in Delmas used to stand before it burned in 1948. Whitecalf images an educational centre focused on reconciliation, education and contemplation.

“People will see it as they’re driving by, and they’ll know what it is. It actually happened and it’s sad. First Nations people are so resilient that they’re healing themselves, and healing the country through education.”

Whitecalf hopes people start acknowledging what happened and teaching it in the school system so everyone knows the truth. As she touched on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, she added that having so much communication and conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders had never happened before. 

“It was historic.” 

The Star Children project will run for three years and is starting its second year. Whitecalf added she anticipates needing a contract extension because of the time-consuming research required. Research began in January and has taken up almost 40 per cent of their time. 

Speaking on the future of Canada and Saskatchewan, Whitecalf said, “There are people out there that don’t believe this, but I think those people, if they keep denying it, will have the Creator or God show them the truth. If people would accept what happened, heal with us, and grow with us, they won’t be as hurt.” 

Whitecalf believes education will aid reconciliation more than anything.

“It’s to educate the little ones. It’s to educate the little kids,” Whitecalf maintains that ignorance is learned alone, but truth is learned together.

“Education is the key.”