Current Problems

Call to Action # 29: Justice (25-42)

Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask. boarding school survivors push for recognition in their lifetimes

March 6, 2023

Hundreds of Sask. boarding school survivors want recognition, compensation like residential school survivors

Hundreds of Sask. boarding school survivors want recognition, compensation like residential school survivors

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: William Caisse thinks about dying more often than he’d like. “I could go at any time,” the 72-year-old said calmly, gently rocking on his living room armchair. Caisse spent nine years at a boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask., a school that about 1,500 children from northern Saskatchewan — mostly Métis — were forced to attend from the 1860s to the 1970s.

He said he’s never received compensation or official recognition as a survivor from any governments. He lost his sister five years ago. He says more than 20 others who went to the school died in the past year. Caisse wants recognition before he dies. “We need this thing settled before we bury any more of our survivors. It hurts every time we do.”

A church with a large cross at the top is surrounded by snow and is under a blue sky.
This newer church was built in the same spot the old boarding school’s church was in Île-à-la-Crosse. The community uses it often for Catholic services. The religion is important to many in the northern Saskatchewan community. (Don Somers/CBC)

Of the children who attended, between 600 and 700 are still alive, according to Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S). While many of these survivors say they suffered abuse and discrimination at the school, advocates say historic, inconsistent government policies have held them back from receiving compensation. “We went through the same thing like the other schools,” said Caisse, who’s a band member of the English River First Nation. “We need it done ASAP.”

Inconsistent policies

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described the schooling in Île-à-la-Crosse as “long and complex.” 

The Catholic church ran a day school there in 1847, which became a boarding school by the 1860s. That pre-dates the federal residential school system, which was running by the 1880s, which is why the school isn’t technically considered a residential school. Children there, however, were also discriminated against, neglected and forced to stop speaking their languages such as Cree and Michif.

The MN-S says both provincial and federal governments funded the school at different points.

A black and white photo shows a large crowd on the grounds of the old boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse.
It’s estimated 1,500 children were forced to go to the boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse from the mid-1800s until the 1970s. This archival photo appears to show an outdoor service. (Submitted by Métis Nation-Saskatchewan)

Vacillation between Canada and the provinces about who was responsible for the Métis led to several inconsistent policies, including complicated funding for Île-à-la-Crosse, according to the Métis National Council (MNC).

MNC president Cassidy Caron said this erratic history is a big reason Île-à-la-Crosse survivors have been left out of past mediation such as the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which funded commemoration and healing efforts, along with individual compensation for survivors.  “Our survivors continue to go unrecognized. It’s almost as if their truths don’t matter as much as other students’,” said Caron in an interview with CBC News.

Cassidy Caron, President of the  Métis National Council, takes part in an announcement in Ottawa on Jan. 12, 2023, regarding funding to support Métis-led engagement that will inform the development of an Indigenous Justice Strategy.
Cassidy Caron, President of the Métis National Council, is advocating for survivors of the boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse, as well as a historic, complicated school in Timber Bay, Sask., to be officially recognized and compensated. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Though the 2016 Daniels decision officially recognized the federal government has a constitutional responsibility for Métis and non-status Indians, Caron said that historic back-and-forth plagues progress to this day. “The Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school is a prominent example of the federal government and the provincial government not working together for the betterment of our people.”

Compensation for the community

Louis Gardiner has never understood why he’s not considered a residential school survivor. “The agenda was the same: take the culture out of the child,” Gardiner told CBC News on the old school grounds in Île-à-la-Crosse. 

Louis Gardiner looks straight at the camera on a sunny, cold February day. He has a green toque on a grey plaid jacket. He's standing in front of his home.
Louis Gardiner, a Métis survivor of the boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse, lives just down the street from the old school grounds. He’s part of the push for official recognition that he and others at the school suffered trauma and abuse. (Don Somers/CBC)

Gardiner shared experiences similar to those of residential school survivors. He was abused. He wasn’t allowed to speak Michif. The church staff publicly humiliated his brother when he wet the bed.

Born and raised in Île-à-la-Crosse, Gardiner hopes the story of his home changes for his 16 grandchildren. “We want a healthy community. We can do the healing ourselves,” he said.

Many survivors want to see compensation go to the community, including a new healing centre to help those with addictions. Gardiner also wants better Métis programming in schools. “All we ask from the government and the Catholic church is give us the tools.”

Decades-long push for recognition

Survivors like Gardiner have advocated for compensation and recognition since the boarding school was excluded from the IRSSA in the early 2000s. In 2019, Ottawa signed a Memorandum of Understanding which began slow-moving discussions addressing the history and solutions.

MN-S says it’s time for the provincial government to show similar cooperation, so it’s funding a proposed class action lawsuit against Ottawa and Saskatchewan. The lawsuit has yet to be certified. “Through funding this, we’re hoping that — ethically and morally — the province of Saskatchewan will step up and come to the table,” said MN-S vice president Michelle LeClair.

Michelle LeClair, vice-president of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, speaks in her office in Saskatoon, Sask.
Michelle LeClair, vice-president of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, hopes the provincial government in Saskatchewan will negotiate on acknowledgement and compensation for Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school survivors. (Don Somers/CBC)

In an email, a spokesperson from the Saskatchewan government said it “recognizes residential schools are a tragic chapter in Canada’s history.” In relation to the boarding school, the statement said “the Government of Saskatchewan did not own or operate this facility. Because the litigation with respect to it remains before the courts, the government cannot comment further at this time.”

In its 94 calls to action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon “the parties, and in particular, the federal government to work collaboratively with plaintiffs not included in the IRSSA.”

‘We are still here’

The community itself has already recognized survivors with a monument by the lakeshore. A bronzed plaque on a smooth boulder includes a piece of writing titled “We are still here.” “It means we are resilient — that they haven’t broken us,” said Métis Elder Dorothy Dubrule.

A boulder with a bronze plaque on it sits between two flag poles. It's surrounded by snow, under a blue sky and a shining sun.
The Sakitawak Elders Group created a monument for the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school survivors that sits on the lakeshore in the community. (Don Somers/CBC)

The Sakitawak Elders Group revealed this monument on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, in 2021. Sakitawak is the Cree name for Île-à-la-Crosse.

Dorothy Dubrule stands in front of a large boulder with a bronze plaque on it. The boulder is between two flag poles - one with the Metis flag, and the other an orange "Every Child Matters" flag.
Dorothy Dubrule is a member of the Sakitawak Elders Group, which put together a monument for the boarding school survivors in Île-à-la-Crosse. (Don Somers/CBC)

Dubrule and her brother, Jeff, went to the school. “He really wanted recognition for the boarding school,” she said. “When I see this, I think, ‘my brother would have loved that,’ but he died in 2009.”

To get recognition in her lifetime “would mean satisfaction in some way,” she said. “That we fought, and we won.”

A bronze plaque describes the pain and suffering Metis and other Indigenous children went through at the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school.
‘We are still here’ was written by a member of the Sakitawak Elders Group for the boarding school survivors in Île-à-la-Crosse. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.


Sam Samson, Journalist

Sam Samson is a senior reporter for CBC News, based in Regina. She’s a multimedia journalist who has also worked for CBC in Winnipeg and Sudbury. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email