WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
When Kawisaiénhne Albany was making a pair of moccasins for a community project to honour children who died at residential schools, she had one person on her mind: her great-great-uncle Ernest Nicholas.
He never returned home from Shingwauk residential school in Sault Saint Marie, Ont.
“I really wanted to represent love because these kids had a really hard ending to their life at such a young age,” said Albany, who is from Kanesatake, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community west of Montreal.
Albany doesn’t know what happened to her great-great-uncle, but she wanted to make the small pair of moccasins for him when a call went out on social media over the summer for beaders to make 215 pairs of moccasins.
“The residential schools were a cultural genocide, so having those moccasins is really bringing back the culture and beadwork,” she said.
Jessica Hernandez, the owner of Nicia’s Accessories in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, started the project to promote healing through beadwork, following the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country.
“I had this overbearing weight on me,” she said.
“I always say that beading is medicine . . . . The act of putting your needle to thread and taking your frustrations out or seeing something through, it just kind of took the weight off.”
She wanted people to make moccasins as they are something that would have been taken away from children when they arrived at residential schools, and for those who died, they may not have had the opportunity to be buried in their traditional regalia.
It’s why Jeci Goodleaf, one of the participants, made corn husk moccasins. Almost a lost art, they were worn by Haudenosaunee during the summer or for burials.
“I thought it would be a nod to the ancestors to use our old form footwear,” said Goodleaf.
“It’s important to continue our ways, and to show that residential schools didn’t succeed because we’re still trying to carry tsi niionkwarihò:ten — our way of life — even through our art forms.”
The project showcases a variety of moccasin and beadwork styles, submitted by First Nations beaders from across Canada.
“It’s so full of life and it’s so full of colours and shows resilience,” said Hernandez.
“It became a positive out of something so horrific.”
Hernandez has brought the moccasins to local schools, with more visits scheduled in the coming weeks, as a way to help talk to children about the legacy of residential schools.
She said it’s a discussion that’s important to continue beyond Sept. 30’s inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“It shouldn’t just be one day,” she said.
“These are things that should be taught all the time to everyone that’s willing to listen.”
Janice Beauvais, the student and community engagement consultant at the Kahnawake Education Center, said it was important to bring the project into the classroom as residential school history was only introduced into the schools’ curriculum within the last few years.
“I think it’s very important and very vital that we discuss our history with our children, our students, even though it may be painful,” she said.
“When I was growing up, I was not educated by our schools, by my family or anyone, and I knew nothing about residential schools.”
For Albany, she said she hopes the project will be a reminder that there’s a child, family, and community behind each number.
“People are looking at this number and they just see a number,” she said.
“But then when they see the moccasins, it’s really impactful to see how many children who could have been wearing those moccasins.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.