The Twittersphere is rife with opinions about the Holocaust and Indian Residential Schools, largely with little reference to fact. I was recently reading the post of my Facebook friend, Kit Krieger. He has made a list of the names of his family members that did not survive the Holocaust. To state that 25 members of his family died in the Holocaust or at least 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust has an impact, but nothing like the impact of naming names. A name opens the path to acknowledging the humanity of the person. Of recognizing that this was somebody’s baby who loved and who was loved. That this person had hopes and dreams that they could never realize.
Long before the Holocaust, the deliberate policy of eradicating the language and culture of our First Nations people began. It was not specific to one leader, but something that was strategically utilized throughout the world as a strategy to deal with “a problem”. Indigenous people who had lived for thousands of years were defined as “the problem.” Historical readings pointed to the savagery and primitive cultures that would not assimilate to the detriment of their children. In hindsight, the politics playing out to appropriate land and resources is abundantly clear.
I learned about the Holocaust in school. I read Ann Frank and cried. I visited her house and cried. I majored in history and learned facts. I joined Amnesty International to champion human rights. I couldn’t bear to watch Schindler’s List when it was first released in the movie theatres. I became a teacher and taught my students to value and celebrate diversity. I carried with me the belief that it we remembered this travesty in history, it would not be repeated. I believed that the United Nations would change the trajectory of history. Time has shown it has been repeated. The eradication strategy as a tool to consolidate political power will not easily be displaced.
The reality of residential schools and forced attendance by Indigenous students has been well documented and available for general consumption for quite some time. To the credit of Canada, we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is now more widely known, albeit without implementation of the recommendations. The people who know people who were forced to attend residential schools, and those who listened to stories from survivors during the work of the Truth and Reconciliation have been impacted. For me it was when my colleague, Latash Nahanee, organized an Indigenous Youth Exchange with students in the Coquitlam School District where we worked and a Friendship House in Ottawa. I was honoured when he asked me to be the teacher sponsor. I was also completely oblivious to how much of Canadian history that I didn’t know and how large the fissure was with our Indigenous people. Family stories had an impact far beyond statistics in textbooks.
In our culture, you can walk into any cemetery and identify the socio-economic status and presumed value of the person in that space. My brother, from my neurosurgeon father and his second wife, according to the size and location of his grave marker, is very important. My mother, apparently less so, based on her place in the modest family plot purchased by her parents. Rosa May, the town prostitute in the gold rush town of Bodie, California, with her crudely marked grave far outside of the town limits, even less so. Those disposed of in pit graves, with no markings at all, apparently no value at all. And yet we know these constructs we place on our dead reveal nothing about the worth of these people. It is the memories evoked by the mention of that person’s name that has power. Christopher Peter Dyck and Barbara Ann Dyck (nee Keenan) evoke a rush of warm memories, laughter and hugs, along with an intense sense of loss. Although the final resting in a cemetery no longer fills a need for me, it is a source of comfort and an important religious rite to many. At very least, we need to pause, hold a person’s name in our heart, and consider their value. The display of shoes outside the Vancouver Art Gallery screams the need for acknowledgement. Mass graves with unnamed children have no place in Canadian society.
As a country, we have shone the light on the human rights abuses of our Indigenous people. However, that represents the first baby step. The discoveries of mass graves at residential schools makes it clear that the children being buried at residential schools were somehow considered less than human. Somehow different enough for them to be treated as less than human. Our precious children and our fellow human beings who loved them deserved to be treated with the respect afforded to any Canadian citizen. As a culture, we need to acknowledge and to grieve our lost children. It is an embarrassment, but it is not to be hidden. It is hard to stare down the reality that in the very formative years of our young country, we followed misguided practices. Only when we stare down the truth, do we start to move down the path towards a civilized society that values human rights and does the right thing in the face of injustices. Perhaps if this work had been done hundreds of years ago across the world, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. Secrecy has been a weapon. It has allowed history to be repeated over and over again. The image of the candle shining a light on human rights is no longer enough. We need a torchlight where the cockroaches have nowhere to hid. Then we need to act and treat our fellow Canadians how we would want to be treated if we found ourselves in the same situation. We need a toolkit of new strategies to deal with conflict.