Trigger warning: this story discusses Residential Schools. If you have been impacted by Residential Schools and need support, you can reach out to the National Residential School Crisis Linea at 1-866-925-4419.
Today is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and a lot of people in this country feel warmer and fuzzier toward the reconciliation part of that phrase than the truth part. But folk music has always been about truth. And protest songs have provided catharsis for many of us filled with pent up frustration about the state of the world.
Thus, on this day for Truth and Reconciliation, we offer a collection of songs that get at the truth about Residential Schools and their lasting effects on Indigenous people across the country.
Jerry Alfred and the Medicine Beat – “Residential School”
A Residential School survivor himself, Jerry Alfred won a 1996 Juno Award for his debut album, Etsi Shon (Grandfather Song) and followed it up with Nendaa, which included this song. Jerry was the song keeper for the Northern Tutchone nation of the Yukon, a title and responsibility bestowed on him at birth, and he merged influences from traditional music with the influence of Bob Dylan. He was by no means the first to blend Indigenous and non-Indigenous musical styles — Buffy Sainte-Marie, Northern Haze and Kashtin were among those who went before him — but he was one of the pioneers nonetheless. He has now passed the song keeper designation on to his eldest daughter.
Tom Jackson – “Lost Souls”
This song, released two years ago, was an absolute gut punch, coming on the heals of the discovery of unmarked graves on the sites of former Residential Schools across the country. It alternates between the point of view of the children who died and the voices of government officials determined to keep their stories buried with their bodies. No horrifying truth goes un-named or glossed over on this haunting track, that sees Tom speaking most of the lyrics angrily rather than singing them. The only moment of hope, if it can be called that, comes at the very end when a child whispers “They found us.”
Rhonda Head – “500 Years”
An award-winning mezzo-soprano from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, Rhonda won several awards for this song, which describes her pain as an intergenerational Residential School survivor. But it’s also a song of resilience and, yes, reconciliation.
Leonard Sumner – “I Know You’re Sorry”
Written in response to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for Residential Schools, and to other apologies offered to First Nations over the years, Leonard Sumner has some choice words for anyone who thinks that simply saying sorry will make everything OK between white people and Indigenous people. He lists off the litany of enduring effects of intergenerational trauma, including lost culture and youth suicide, and questions where the action is to right those wrongs though, for example, support for language classes.
Julian Taylor – “S.E.E.D.S”
Julian’s single from his latest album, Beyond the Reservoir, derives from a message his cousin sent him in the wake of the discovery of unmarked graves on the sites of former Residential Schools. It read, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The song is an homage to Indigenous people’s survival and resilience in spite of the odds. The title is also an acronym for the song’s lyrical hook: “Somehow everyone eventually dreams someday.”