Signs of Your Identity

Daniella Zalcman

2015 - Ongoing


For 120 years, the Canadian government operated a network of Indian Residential Schools that were 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.

Generations of Canada's First Nations forgot who they were. Languages died out, sacred ceremonies were criminalized and suppressed. "'You stupid Indian' were the first English words I ever learned," Tom Janvier told me. He was sent to residential school as a 3-year-old, where he was bullied, beaten, and sexually molested. "It became self-fulfilling. My identity was held against me.”

These double exposure portraits explore the trauma of some of the 80,000 living survivors who remain, and through extensive accompanying interviews address the impact of intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, and document the slow path towards healing.

{{ readMoreButton }}

    Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School

    “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?”


    Muskowekwan Indian Residential School

    “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.”

    Muskowekwan Indian Residential School

    “I’ve spent half my life incarcerated, and I blame residential school for that. But I also know I have to give up my hate because I’m responsible for myself. I have three adult daughters and I was in jail for the duration of their childhoods. I have a 2 year old son now and I need to be there for him. I have to be different.”

    Marieval Indian Residential School

    “I ran away 27 times. But the RCMP always found us eventually. When I got out, I turned to booze because of the abuse. I drank to suppress what had happened to me, to deal with my anger, to deal with my pain, to forget. Ending up in jail was easy, because I’d already been there.”

    Ile-a-la-Crosse Indian Residential School (1970-1073)
    St. Michael’s Indian Residential School (1974-1976)
    Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School (1976-1978)

    “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.”

    St. Phillips Indian Residential School

    “We as a people have normalized every conceivable dysfunction that we experienced in residential school. Negativity is transmitted — and if we don’t deal with it we pass it on. Even in school, kids who themselves were terrorized grew up to be abusers. We need to figure out how to heal from that.”

    Gordon Indian Residential School

    Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School

    “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.”

    Gordon Indian Residential School

    “I wish I’d had an education, but it was more like a little jail instead.”

    Gordon Indian Residential School

    “I used to be able to speak my language when I was little. But now, because of residential school, I only know how to say hello and count to ten. I turn on the native radio station and I just like to sit and listen. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but everyone once in a while a word will pop out at me and it’ll jog some small memory. I’ve lost a lot of things, but I think that’s one of the ones I miss most.”

    Marieval Indian Residential School

    “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.”

    Gordon Indian Residential School

    “After I’d had enough of that place, one day I jumped the 8 foot high fence and I took off down the highway. I found a farm, and I asked if I could work, and I stayed there for two and a half years on a salary of a dollar a day. I told the farmer I’d run away [from residential school], and he said he didn’t care — and if anyone came looking for me he’d chase them off for trespassing. He saved me.”

    Beauval Indian Residential School

    Marieval Indian Residential School

    “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.”

    Muskowekwan Indian Residential School

    “My mother and her siblings went to school [at Muskowekwan] too. When my mom’s sister was 7 years old, she was pushed down a flight of stairs by a nun and broke her back. She died instantly. All of the kids were terrified that the same thing would happen to them. My mother didn’t tell me her story until 1993, when she was crippled by arthritis and at the end of her life. It finally became clear why she had never been able to care for me — when I was two weeks old, she abandoned me in high grass on our reserve … We all abuse each other this way. It’s what we were taught.”

    St. Phillips Indian Residential School

    “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.”

    Guy Hill Indian Residential School

    “We had to pray every day and ask for forgiveness. But forgiveness for what? When I was 7 I started being abused by a priest and a nun. They’d come around after dark with a flashlight and would take away one of the little girls almost every night. … You never really heal from that. I turned into an alcoholic and it’s taken me a long time to escape that. I can’t forgive them. Never.”

    Gordon Indian Residential School (1970-1973)
    Muskowekwan Indian Residential School (1973-1975)

    “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.”

    Beauval Indian Residential School

    “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.”