Looking back, Albert McCallum compares the eight years he spent at the Île-à-la-Crosse Indian Residential School with his six siblings to prison.
The residential school system was designed with the objectives of assimilating Indigenous youth into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living.
The schools would forcibly separate children from their families and forbade them to use their own languages or acknowledge their Indigenous heritage. If the students disobeyed, they would be beaten. For McCallum, that came in the form of a strap.
“The strap is a heavy, heavy strap too. It’s not a belt, it’s a strap,” McCallum said.
“A lot of them [students] become bedwetters from the trauma. It was just like prison, because I ended up in prison one time years after that. There’s no difference, you don’t own yourself, you have to follow orders.”
Even at the school, McCallum said the families were separated.
“We weren’t allowed to associate with relatives with imaginary lines in the schools,” he said. “We couldn’t talk with our cousins on the other side. It was just like a prison yard.”
Survivors of both Île-à-la-Crosse and Timber Bay have been denied the Indian Residential School settlements that other sites received on the basis that the schools were run by the Province of Saskatchewan, rather than funded by the federal government.
McCallum was the third generation in his family to go into the residential school system and is one of the remaining who is still seeking compensation and an apology.
He attributes the abuse his family suffered as leading to the suicide of his father when McCallum was 13, his mother’s alcoholism, and his own eventual drug abuse and alcoholism. Now he’s been clean for 21 years.
“They’re all connected one way or another,” he said.
“I had three brothers, three sisters to take care of – to protect them. It was rough for a young boy like me.”
McCallum kept his Michif-Cree language through being taught by his grandmother during Christmas and summer holidays when he was allowed to leave.
“I’m glad I kept my language,” he said. “My grandma took care of us, she made sure we didn’t lose it.”
In 2005, former Île-à-la-Crosse students filed a class action against the Government of Canada and Province of Saskatchewan. Plaintiffs alleged that both governments are responsible for the sexual abuse, physical abuse, cultural abuse, isolation, and mental and emotional abuse that former students endured while attending the boarding school.
In 2019, the federal government and president of Métis-Nation Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of understanding, committing parties to exploratory discussions to address the legacy of the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school.
The province was not involved in the signing, although there was a placeholder inviting them.
On June 9, 2021, after the discovery of 215 children’s bodies at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, the Saskatchewan New Democrats are requesting the provincial government to work with survivors groups from both residential schools to determine appropriate compensation, and make an official apology in the Legislature.
McCallum said he feels the government “keeps dragging their feet.”
“We’re all getting up there in age,” McCallum said. “The main thing is the apology and being compensated there. I was there for eight years, that’s a long time. Being away from your parents for 10 months out of the year. It affects you long-term.”