Trigger Warning: Canadian residential school system; child abuse; trauma
Humans love euphemisms. The media is flooded with reports that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in an unmarked mass grave on formal residential school grounds near Kamloops, BC.
Let’s rephrase the description to better reflect the gravity of this situation.
215 Indigenous children died in conditions of neglect and abuse.
They died in the mandatory “care” of religious institutions that were endorsed by the government.
Their deaths were not recorded nor acknowledged.
The bodies of these innocent children were buried disrespectfully and forgotten by those responsible for their deaths.
215 innocent children did not return to their families and communities. The people who loved them had no closure, and were not permitted the dignity of mourning their stolen children according to their faiths and traditions.
I live and work on Treaty Six Territory. I acknowledge the many Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Métis, Dene, and Nakota Sioux people who have called these lands home for centuries. I respect and honour the history, knowledge, languages, beliefs, and cultures of the Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people of Canada.
I write this essay from a place of white privilege. My words are only the thoughts of one woman, but this topic is too important for me to remain silent.
My admittedly limited knowledge of the Canadian residential school system is based on reading and hearing first-hand accounts of survivors and their families; reading copies of official documents related to residential schools; and completing courses from the Faculty of Native Studies while I pursued my degree in education.
As a mother, I struggle to sit with the feelings that arise when I try to imagine the pain of parents whose children were taken from them under threat of violence and/or legal punishment. My instinct tells me I would not survive the loss of my daughters. If my body were somehow able to carry on, my heart and spirit would be forever crushed.
As a teacher, I try to envision the trauma Indigenous children endured in residential schools, year after year, generation after generation. My heart aches that deliberate abuse, neglect, and cultural genocide was hidden behind the guise of education.
Official government and church documents state the goal of residential schooling: removing Indigenous children from their communities, culture, and families to “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
If that quotation struck you, note that it is from an official House of Commons report authored by John A. Macdonald in May of 1883.
The news of 215 discarded and forgotten Indigenous children being at last discovered on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory has kept me and many others awake at night, and rightfully so. Kamloops is the site of only one of over 130 residential schools in Canada. Horrifyingly, it is extremely likely these stolen children are the first recovered in a series of heartbreaking investigations across Canada.
Survivors of residential schools, and their families, have shared as much as they felt safe to reveal about the trauma they suffered. We have known about the systematic cruelty of these institutions for decades, yet so few Canadians seem to recognize what was done to Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people in our country.
I cannot stomach many of the comments I am reading online. The vitriol directed at the victims of the residential school system is stunning. Racism and denial are not merely seeping in at the cracks, but are being poured on these open wounds with gusto.
What the actual hell is wrong with people?
If someone in your life told you their relative died tragically, you would never demand proof of death and proof of identity. You would never invalidate the trauma of losing that individual. Offering condolences and acknowledging their grief would likely happen without second thought. You would probably say you were “sorry for their loss” without arguing that you had no direct relationship to the death of their loved one.
And yet, fools all over the internet are reacting with hate to the news that 215 children died and their bodies have just been discovered. I have read victim-blaming diatribes that I can’t get out of my head. Many have stated that these deaths and residential schools are long in the past (not true, as the last residential school closed in 1996) and that Indigenous people need to “let it go” or “get over it already.”
I am disgusted by these attitudes.
The Premier of Alberta has made no official response to this situation as of yet. I do not expect that he will. Jason Kenney did, however, openly discuss the red herring of “cancel culture” and his concerns about erasing Canada’s history in response to the news that several schools in the province named after men who created and implemented the residential school system will be renamed.
Few people are suggesting that we scour men like John A. Macdonald from the teaching of history, although perhaps there would be a certain justice in doing so. Macdonald will remain a major figure in Canada’s past, even as the truth of his wrongdoing emerges. His face has been on postage stamps and money over many decades. Over at least as long a stretch, Macdonald has been honoured in the naming of schools, highways, airports, and public buildings. His successes and admirable qualities have been recognized, but the monumental suffering he caused has not.
The bitter irony is how many people are rallying against changing names and removing statues, lest we erase the past. Those folks only want to preserve the past that matches their own ideals. They are content to ignore the suffering of Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people, dismissing the crimes as too long ago to count, yet insist that wealthy, powerful white men who have been dead for over a century continue to be acknowledged.
None of the 215 stolen children recently discovered, nor the untold numbers still waiting to be found, had the opportunity to make an impact on their communities and on our country. The countless ripples of suffering caused by their deaths continue impact their loved ones. We will never know what potential was destroyed at the end of these young lives, and the gravity of the loss of every child who died in a residential school needs to be acknowledged.
No person who carries the trauma of residential schooling should have to see the architects of their suffering honoured in the names of schools in 2021, nor should they have to stand in the shadow of a statue of the same figure.
I have no answers. I’m writing this in an effort to release some of the big feelings I’ve been immersed in over recent days.
My sincerest hope is that our government and our citizens will at last be willing to truly hear the voices of Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people who have been harmed by residential schools. May we all listen openly, and respond with compassion, and be willing to honour what the victims of these tragedies tell us they need to move toward healing.
To each of the 215 children found on formal residential school grounds in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc: You matter. You mattered on the day of your birth, the day of your death, and every other day of your existence on this planet. You matter still. I’m so sorry for your suffering. You deserved so much better.
I welcome suggestions and corrections from survivors of residential schools, knowledge keepers, elders, and anyone who can help me learn how to appropriately honour the experiences of those who have been affected by residential schools in Canada and beyond.