Editor's note: The following story contains depictions of residential schools, some of which are graphic in nature and may be triggering or distressing to some readers.
Please exercise personal discretion before reading.
MONTREAL — On Monday, as the Montreal Canadiens attempt to stave off elimination and stage the first leg of a historic comeback in the Stanley Cup Final, Steve Bonspiel will be among 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre intent on standing and cheering them on through every second of game action.
But for roughly one-and-a-half minutes before it all gets started, when the Canadian national anthem gets belted out at full volume, he and his wife, Onawa Jacobs, will sit and complete what they feel is a much more important mission. They’re Mohawks from Kahnawake, a First-Nations reserve on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. They’re descendants of people who owned this land thousands of years before the birth of the country, they’re survivors of intergenerational trauma more recently experienced in the now-defunct residential school system and they want to raise awareness about how their communities have been treated by Canada.
For Bonspiel, born Soherise (pronounced Zo-heh-ree-ze) Bonspiel, and Onawa (Oh-na-wah), the wounds run deep. He has friends and relatives affected, and three of her four grandparents were scarred so badly that the very mention of residential school is verboten for the two remaining ones.
They won’t speak about it, but Bonspiel and Jacobs will with this gesture.
“I think it’s about getting people to understand,” Bonspiel said in an interview with Sportsnet earlier this week. “The average Canadian will say, ‘Why are you doing that? This country’s great,’ and I will counter and say, ‘How do you know what I’ve been through? Ask me why in a nice, respectful way and I’ll explain it to you.’
“By sitting down for the anthem, I’m hoping people will talk to me. I’m hoping people will understand that this country is great and there’s a lot of great things about it, but there’s a lot of deep, dark things that have never been resolved. I’m hoping people look past whatever indignity they think it is, and if they’re going to compare me sitting down for the anthem to thousands and thousands of children who are dead in unmarked graves, whose parents never knew where they went, there’s no comparison. I’m just doing a small part to keep that conversation going.”
Editor's note: If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.
It is a subject that has many Canadians recoiling in disbelief and dismay, with the discovery last month of 215 unmarked graves of children at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., awakening them to a reality most of them weren’t taught about in their own upbringing. The shame of a nation is deepening with every discovery that’s been made since — 751 unmarked graves were found near the former site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan on June 25, another 182 were revealed near the St. Eugene’s Mission Residential school in Cranbrook, B.C. on June 30 — and at least four new investigations spanning from the Pacific all the way to Nova Scotia are underway.
Stories from survivors are both unfathomable and gruesome.
Bonspiel, born in Kahnawake’s neighboring reserve of Kanesatake, is the owner of a local publication called the Eastern Door. In addition to covering sports, profiling some of the community’s rising stars and sharing human interest stories, he’s lately been spending much of his time interviewing people who experienced the horror of residential school.
“I’ve heard stories of authorities performing obscene sexual acts on children and all kinds of abuse, of kids always being hungry, kids getting the hell beaten out of them for speaking their language,” Bonspiel said. “One person I know tried to escape twice and the second time was beaten so badly he was sent to the infirmary and cared for by a veterinarian instead of a doctor or nurse.
“There’s so many recountings of the abuse, the neglect and now, of course, we’re hearing about a lot of the deaths — some from experiments, some that were just murdered. And then stories about a kid disappearing and his friends being told to plant trees but knowingly digging a grave for him.”
It is the stuff of nightmares, things that have elicited a deep emotional response Bonspiel struggles to put into words.
“Let’s put it this way, I didn’t go through it, but I spoke with a residential school survivor for two hours (on Wednesday) and I was visibly shaken,” Bonspiel said. “I had to take a ride on my own to just cry. I was so disgusted by these men and women put into authority positions, committing these acts against kids. It’s just gross, and I want to raise awareness about it.”
It is a more important reason to be at the Bell Centre on Monday than the one that’s initially bringing Bonspiel and Jacobs there to see their team try to win the first of four games to come back and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Though they are diehard Canadiens fans, with the 45-year-old Bonspiel narrowly missing out on attending the last Cup Final game in Montreal and not wanting to lose this opportunity 28 years in the making, they feel this is a chance to extend the conversation on Indigenous history and rights in Canada at a time when it is being amplified.
For the first time in his life, Bonspiel feels that, with the media and big corporations making efforts to spotlight this story, momentum is gaining on the quest for true reconciliation.
“I think it’s very important. Those steps are important,” he said. “The first steps you take as a child can lead you towards being an Olympic runner. You’re not going to start off as an Olympic runner, you have to take baby steps. Seeing those orange ribbons every time I watch hockey — we watch everything in the playoffs, not just the Canadiens games — and seeing (Hockey Night in Canada host Kyle) Bukauskas the other day do a land acknowledgment (prior to puck drop) and seeing the Canadiens do their tribute at the Bell Centre (after the Kamloops discovery), those things make you feel good because it makes you feel like you’re being heard.
“Of course, there’s a long way to go and there’s a whole lot more things to do. But if we’re starting there, that means we’re going to continue from there hopefully. If we don’t do any of that, like the networks have done forever before that, then we’re just going to continue doing the same things, we’re just going to continue to treat Indigenous peoples as sub-humans.”
That Bonspiel also sees the seeds for change being planted on a societal level is eye-opening for him.
“I do have some really good feelings about the people who have reached out, who have tweeted their support and have kind of educated themselves,” Bonspiel said. “I see a lot of Canadians changing. It gives me a lot of hope because it’s way different from when I was reporting on residential schools 15 years ago, where the average Canadian said it didn’t happen or thought it was a lie because they had never heard of it before.
“Now it’s in their face. I’ve seen the two solitudes of, ‘Hey, we believe and we support you,’ and then the other side of, ‘F off, you don’t deserve anything, get over it.’
“There’s no getting over it. And I would tell people that if your son or daughter was abused somewhere for many years and came home or never came home, would you ever get over it? Of course, you wouldn’t. That’s what we’re dealing with as Nations is this intergenerational trauma. But I do hold hope, and I do see a lot of differences in people not just turning away from it and people acknowledging that there’s some shame to feel as Canadians because this happened in Canada.”
And there are many Canadians who don’t know anything about it, and others who continue to choose to look away from it. Those are the people Bonspiel and Jacobs hope to reach with what they’re doing at the Bell Centre on Monday.