September 30th is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a time dedicated to recognizing the tragic history of the residential school system in Canada while honouring the missing children, the Survivors, and their communities.
For generations, Indigenous artists have transformed the trauma of residential schools into song, using music as a tool for cultural preservation, storytelling, and healing. In honour of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the artists who have carried the burden of sharing these stories, below are songs that offer a deeper insight into the pain endured by the First Nations, Inuit and Métis children across Canada.
Experimentalist Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s art is a haunting and beautiful exploration of trauma and resilience. The title track of her JUNO-nominated album Tongues speaks to the legacy of residential schools bringing to life the pain, strength, and resilience of Indigenous people despite all that has attempted to silence them.
They took our tongues / They tried to take our tongues / We lost our language / And we didn’t / Inuuvunga (I am Inuk) / We didn’t / Inuuvunga (I am Inuk).
Digging Roots, a musical duo composed of Shoshona Kish and Raven Kanatakta, seamlessly blend Indigenous traditions with contemporary sounds. Their song “Cut My Hair” from their JUNO-winning album Zhawenim touches on the traumatic experiences of Indigenous people in residential schools where their hair, a symbol of their culture and identity, was forcibly cut as part of the assimilation process.
When they cut my hair / I said they’re tryin’ to cut down my roots / Oh when they cut my hair / I said they’re tryin’ to cut down my roots / Won’t even let me speak my words / Ahh, they’re trying to take that too.
Hailing from the Haisla Nation, Snotty Nose Rez Kids bring a modern twist to Indigenous hip-hop. Their songs, including “Savage Mob” are unapologetic in addressing the struggles faced by Indigenous youth and the enduring impact of residential schools. Through their music, they amplify the voices of their communities and challenge stereotypes.
We don’t need your education / We don’t need your thought control / Priest don’t kill my tribe / Hey! Leave them kids alone.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music has long been intertwined with Indigenous rights and historical truth-telling. Her song “Universal Soldier” became an anthem for the anti-war movement in the 1960s, but it’s her later work that has directly addressed the residential school experience. Songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” delve into these dark aspects of Canadian history, shedding light on the injustice faced by Indigenous peoples.
You force us to send our toddlers away / To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions / Forbid them their languages / Then further say that American history really began / When Columbus set sail out of Europe and stress / That the nation of leeches that’s conquered this land / Are the biggest and bravest and boldest, and best.
Cree singer and philanthropist, Tom Jackson’s song “Lost Souls” explores the grim reality described by residential school Survivors and their families. Written in response to the 215 unmarked graves found at the former Kamloops residential school in 2021, the song shifts from the perspective of the children who endured the horrors of these institutions as well as the government responsible for them.
You get so much praise for your long, beautiful braid / Your life is in your hair / I’ll cut it / You say a prayer / Government says we got an issue / We don’t know what to do / Too brave and proud it’s true / Chop that totem down an inch or two.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not only just a day for remembering and recognizing the history of residential schools. It is also an opportunity to foster dialogue and take steps towards cultivating relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities rooted in the acknowledgment of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership. For more information about National Day for Truth and Reconciliation visit https://nctr.ca/.
Featured image: 2017 JUNO Awards. Performance by A Tribe Called Red, Big Bear and Tanya Tagaq. The Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa, On. April 2, 2017. (Photo: CARAS\iPhoto).