For nearly a century, the Canadian government took Indigenous Canadians from their families and placed them in church-run boarding schools, forcibly assimilating them to Western culture. Children as young as 2 or 3 years old were taken from their homes, their language extinguished, their culture destroyed. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, photographer Daniella Zalcman has been documenting the lingering effects of this trauma for her book, Signs of Your Identity, this year's winner for the FotoEvidence Book Award.
"Students were punished for speaking their native languages or observing Indigenous traditions, physically and sexually assaulted, and in extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization," Zalcman said. "At least 6,000 children died while in the system—so many that it was common for residential schools to have their own cemeteries."
Zalcman's double exposures combine portraits of the former students with places or items relating to their experience, giving the photos an ethereal look that underscores the damage the system caused. The last Indian Residential School closed in 1996. The government issued its first apology in 2008.
Mike Pinay, who attended the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School from 1953 to 1963: "It was the worst 10 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?
The village of Lebret, Saskatchewan was home to the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School. The facility operated under the federal government and Catholic Church from 1884 to 1969, and under the governance of the Star Blanket Cree Nation from 1973 to 1998. While most of the original school structures have been demolished, one building remains, visible on the far right side of the photo.
Selina Brittain, who attended the Marieval Indian Residential School from 1954 to 1962: “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.”
Rick Pelletier, who attended the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School from 1965 to 1966: “My parents came to visit and I told them I was being beaten. My teachers said that I had an active imagination, so they didn’t believe me at first. But after summer break they tried to take me back, and I cried and cried and cried. I ran away the first night, and when my grandparents went to take me back, I told them I’d keep running away, that I’d walk back to Regina if I had to. They believed me then.”
"My parents came to visit and I told them I was being beaten. My teachers said that I had an active imagination..."
The only road from Beauval Indian Residential School led straight to the Beaver River. Students regularly tried to run away, but either were too small to try to cross or drowned in the attempt.
Gary Edwards, who attended the Ile-a-la-Crosse Indian Residential School from 1970 to 1973, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School from 1974 to 1976, and Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School from 1976 to 1978: “I remember after mass every Monday, the head priest would set a large mason jar on the podium. He and two helpers would lock the church doors, and then put on those 1930s canister gas masks. Then they’d open the mason jars and just watch us. We never knew what was happening, but within a few minutes kids would start vomiting or twitching or foaming at the mouth. Looking back, I don’t know, but I think it was mustard gas.”
Valerie Ewenin, who attended the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School from 1965 to 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.”
A swing set in Beauval, Saskatchewan, near the former site of the Beauval Indian Residential School.
Elwood Friday, who attended the St. Phillips Indian Residential School from 1951 to 1953: “I’ve never told anyone what went on there. It’s shameful. I am ashamed. I’ll never tell anyone, and I’ve done everything to try to forget.”
Glen Ewenin, who attended the Gordon Indian Residential School from 1970 to 1973 and the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School 1973 to 1975: “Residential school affects how you see the world. I can’t fit into the public anymore, I don’t feel like a normal person. … I don’t even notice myself teaching my kids to be afraid of authority. But it’s made me such a negative person. It changes everything.”
The ruins of the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School
"I’ve been told I’m going to hell so many times and in so many ways. Now I’m just scared of God.”
Deedee Lerat, who attended the Marieval Indian Residential School from 1967 to 1970: “When I was 8, Mormons swept across Saskatchewan. So I was taken out of residential school and sent to a Mormon foster home for five years. I’ve been told I’m going to hell so many times and in so many ways. Now I’m just scared of God.”