The policy of removing children from their homes to distance them from their families and their cultures was not the idea of one person with enough power to make it happen. Europeans came to North American and encountered the unfamiliar. They learned how to survive, navigate the land, extract resources, and benefit from alliances with Indigenous people before making the decision to obliterate Indigenous cultures. It was not about moral high ground and improving the lives of the children. It was about access to land, resources, and creating a malleable population. The residential system was in existence for well over 100 years and many successive generations lived the trauma generation after generation.
The discovery of 215 children in a mass, unmarked grave was shocking but it was not a surprise. Indigenous people have shared stories about their missing children since the inception of the residential system. Their friends have known the truth for many decades. For others, we may not have been taught about the policy to “remove the Indian from the child” and the use of the residential system to do so, when we were being educated in schools prior to 2010. However, it is not possible for Canadians to have missed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that criss-crossed Canada for six years. It is not possible to pretend that we did not know this happened.
The Commission heard more than 6,000 stories from witnesses, most of whom survived the experience of living in the schools as students. There was wide media coverage, marches, ceremonies, healing circles, people acting as supports to traumatized Indigenous people reliving the experience. Enduring art installations of wooden tiles were created by children in the school system demonstrating their understanding of this time when children were forcibly removed from their families.
“Children were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world.”
Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair
Dr. Marie Wilson, Commissioner
Chief Wilton Littlechild, Commissioner
June 2, 2015
Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The Commission named it – Cultural genocide – and offered 94 recommendations for governments, churches, public institutions, and non-Indigenous Canadians to move from apology to meaningful reconciliation.
I was very aware of this dark part of our history but I was somewhat of a loss for navigating the path to support Indigenous families and students in the wake of discovering the 215 children in Kamloops. The image that came to my mind with the discovery of the children in a mass grave was the Holocaust. We understand this to be a time in which we knew people were treated with cruelty and disrespect that did not even acknowledge their humanity. As a mother, I cannot even imagine having to live through this experience.
This is not solely an Indigenous tragedy. It is a Canadian tragedy and a Canadian failure. Just as Germans were well aware of Hitler’s politics, the persecution of the Jews, and their disappearance, the anti-semitism paved the way for it to happen. People saw and treated other people like they were less than human. Canadians voted for leaders who perpetuated residential schools for over 100 years. Clearly, we need leaders with the moral and ethical integrity to take on difficult issues like systemic racism in a deep and meaningful way. We have all experienced leaders only concerned with their personal advancement. That is not what we need now.
The people providing the leadership in the discovery of the 215 lost children, are the people suffering the most. Not suffering a new loss but acknowledging the unthinkable. Anyone who has lost a beloved person in their life, knows that grief does not disappear with time. We are more able to live with it beside us, and some days it is more palpable than others. The loss and pain exists close to the surface.
Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir spoke with such poise and grace to the press about her heart being completely broken, wanting nothing less than respect and honour for the 215 children discovered, and the end of the racism that negatively impacts Indigenous people today.
Monique Gray Smith @ltldrum made a video to help adults have difficult conversations with students about residential schools. Jo Chrona @luudisk talks about her place between sadness and anger and the importance for us to turn towards the pain, assume the responsibility to continue learning, and engage in a collective response. These are the people who are able to provide the stories that we most need to hear. Listening to the stories is the beginning. The stories provide us with guidance for how me move forward to end personal and systemic racism, and create the expectation that our Indigenous people deserve the respect and honour we expect for all families in Canada.