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My Turn

Full circle

Resilience, reflection, relationships & residential schools

“Do you want to go visit an abandoned school?” my new childhood friend asked. Without hesitation, I responded, “Of course, where is it?” I had just started to develop my detective skills, but my curiosity was fully established by my first year of high school. Having already explored a number of abandoned buildings, I had yet to come across a school. Little did I know I was beginning a journey that would only reach full circle three decades later.

Courtesy of Dr. Rebekah Jacques

The symbol of a circle reflects many Indigenous pedagogies. Circles are a sacred symbol of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life on Earth, which is itself round, and is supported by the round sun and moon. A circle is our symbol for spirituality, family structures, our governance, our culture and our health. We hold our gatherings in a circle, our drums are round, our sweat lodge is round and the medicine wheel is round.

As we walked over to the abandoned school under the clear blue sky of northern Ontario, the air was filled with excitement and wonder.

What would we discover?

We arrived at the Spanish Indian Residential School, once the largest residential school in Ontario. It was located in the small town of Spanish halfway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. Closed in 1965, the school was a federally funded, church-run institution. It functioned as a set of single-sex Indian residential schools for generations of Indigenous children who were relocated from various territories across Turtle Island. The intent was to separate Indigenous children from their families, culture and language. The outcome was genocide.

What remained of the school was the shell of a grey stone building. The glass windows were gone but a tree grew within the site. This building was known as the girl’s school. In contrast to the cheery sun overhead, the place seemed eerie. My friend told me it was probably because children had died at these types of schools and many of the children never returned home.

We walked back in silence along the gravel road. I was consumed with thoughts of what I had just witnessed. It was then that I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. The textbooks in my local library had already inspired me to think about careers. I was debating between being an astronaut, a criminologist or a forensic pathologist. It was that experience at the Spanish Indian Residential School that inspired me to become a forensic pathologist. I hoped that one day I could help families bring the children home who had died in residential schools.


On National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2022, my full circle moment happened. After years of medical training, numerous examinations, countless hours of studying and determination to become a forensic pathologist, I was honoured to be invited to join the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.

Our first meeting was at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet on Treaty One Land. Once I arrived, I felt I had come full circle from my first steps at the Spanish Residential School when I was a youth.

Our structure for the National Advisory Committee is a circle, composed predominantly of Indigenous people who have expertise in Indigenous laws and cultural protocols, forensics, archaeology, archival research, mental health and wellness, criminal investigations and communication. This circle of expertise is guided by the lived experience and resilience of a Circle of Survivors, which includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

Our work often reflects the circle paradigm, which is explicit in how we conduct our meetings but also implicit in how forensic disciplines could serve in this work. Specifically, the forensic framework incorporates teachings related to the circle, primarily the medicine wheel and its four dimensions within its circular structure. Together, we have worked tirelessly to be a trusted resource for families and communities looking for their children. The circle is a necessary part of this sacred work and offers a perspective needed to carry the heaviness of this labour. Western linear and hierarchical approaches may not be strong enough to do this work.

It is an honour for me to do this work with the Circle of Survivors, Elders and other experts. It is humbling and I don’t take it lightly. Thinking back to that day when my friend and I saw the wreckage of that school, I see now that this is the work I was meant to do. 

Dr. Rebekah Jacques is a Métis forensic pathologist and assistant professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.