My children know the meaning of their names. They know that their names were chosen for them specifically, with love and intentionality.

A child’s name holds significance, cultural importance and value. Names personify and identify. They are deeply personal and a reminder of worth.

Names hold great significance to the Creator as well. Adam names the animals in Eden. God makes a covenant with Abram and renames him Abraham. God wrestles with Jacob and renames him Israel. An angel commands Mary to name her son Jesus, and later gives similar instructions to Joseph, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). In Isaiah 43:1 (NLT), God says, “I have called you by name.” We sing this truth, too: “He knows my name.”

Despite this, the moment Indigenous children set foot in an Indian residential school—frequently operated by a Christian church—the assault on their bodies and their identities often began with the stripping of their Indigenous names, replacing them with Euro-Christian ones.

What’s worse, each student was then assigned a number, which teachers would often use instead of a name. This dehumanizing behaviour is only a minute representation of the atrocities to which these Indigenous children were subjected. Indeed, an estimated one in 25 of them died within the walls of these Indian residential schools after being malnourished, neglected and abused.

It’s no wonder that the graves of these children, now being revealed by the hundreds in various locations across the country, are largely unmarked, the names of these children carelessly discarded just as their little bodies were.

This should not come as a surprise. Of the 4,400 children who were previously known to have died at Indian residential schools, a statistic recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (though the commission believed, even at the time of publication in 2015, that the number is much higher), one third were not named.

How can this be? It is possible that some of the records are simply missing or that graveyards have deteriorated over the years. Considering the general lack of dignity shown to Indigenous peoples, it’s just as likely that the children’s identities were lost because the government and schools simply didn’t record the students’ name before burying them. In some places, the lack of record-keeping was quite intentional for fear of criminal charges being laid.

Although we may seek to rationalize this in statements that the property was abandoned, or that record-keepers were ignorantly negligent, the fact is that many children died without their parents and families being informed or being allowed to properly bury them in their home communities.

Haudenosaunee author Alicia Elliott, writing for Maclean’s magazine, reminds us that “the children whose tiny bodies have been unearthed on the grounds of Indian residential schools across the country in recent weeks had names and nations and communities. They had families who ached for their return, who asked after them and were deliberately told nothing.”

Sadly, the names of all the Indigenous children left in unmarked graves may never be known, but their lives have been grieved since the moment they were forced from their homes to attend Indian residential schools.

In recent months, it seems that non-Indigenous Canadians are finally listening to the narrative Elders and Indigenous communities have been telling for years. Through the wearing of orange shirts, the colouring of artistic eagle feathers, the placing of small pairs of shoes along stairways and lantern-lit pathways, in conversations shared and stories learned, in lamenting hearts and acts of justice, we are remembering the thousands of children we had previously ignored.

In these ways we offer our confession, learn about our responsibility and what it means to walk gently with one another in right relations, and commit to overcoming injustice and doing better.

May we never forget again.

Captain Laura Van Schaick is the divisional secretary for women’s ministries in the Ontario Division.

Photo: Nick/

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