VALERIE EWENIN Muskowekwan Indian Residential School 1965-1971 “I was brought up believing in the nature ways, burning sweetgrass, speaking Cree. And then I went to residential school and all that was taken away from me. And then later on, I forgot it, too, and that was even worse.”
MIKE PINAY Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School 1953-1963 “It was the worst ten years of my life. I was away from my family from the age of 6 to 16. How do you learn about family? I didn’t know what love was. We weren’t even known by names back then. I was a number.” “Do you remember your number?” “73.”

Signs of Your Identity

In the 1870s, the Canadian government created a network of Indian Residential Schools meant to assimilate young indigenous students into western Canadian culture. Indian agents would take children from their homes as young as two or three and send them to church-run boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions, routinely sexually and physically assaulted, and in some extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization. 

The last residential school closed in 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008. 

These multiple exposure portraits show survivors who are still fighting to overcome the memories of their residential school experiences. These are the echoes of trauma that remain even as the healing process begins. 

This project was supported by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. More information is available here. SOYI was also the recipient of the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award, and can be purchased here.

“I was brought up believing in the nature ways, burning sweetgrass, speaking Cree. And then I went to residential school and all that was taken away from me. And then later on, I forgot it, too, and that was even worse.”

-- Valerie Ewenin

“I believe that they thought they were teaching us. I believe that they thought that assimilating us into their way of life would help us. But they changed us into something we weren’t — and there was nothing wrong with our way of life before. That’s what they still don’t understand.”

-- Selina Brittain


“It’s hard for me to really love my children. I grapple with the word love. By the time I got out of school I’d started drinking heavily — I went to a center for alcohol abuse, and it was like a prison, but it felt like home. I knew how to live in that environment. … I got caught in the wrong place and time in history. I don’t think we can ever heal from this. We’re just going to have to die with all the pain.”

-- Joseph Gordon Edechanchyonce