bearing witness: 215 tiny skeletons speak to us. canadians must listen.

The discovery, last week, of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former Indian Residential School has sent shock waves through Canada, especially through this province, where the gruesome evidence was found. 

The skeletons of the children, some seemingly as young as three years old, were in an unmarked mass grave.

For survivors of residential schools, this has almost certainly brought retraumatization, and profound grief and sorrow throughout their communities. For many of us not directly impacted, this has brought great sadness. I myself feel a deep sadness that I can't shake.

Shocking and not shocking

Many Canadians seem to be shocked by this discovery, which means we have a lot more work to do to educate ourselves about the Residential Schools, and the horrors of imperialism and colonialism -- the home-grown variety, the kind that created this country. The kind that non-Indigenous Canadians benefit from every day.

The discovery is shocking, in that the news rockets us out of our everyday worlds, and forces us to contemplate the enormity of these crimes. But that these graves exist, that this horror actually took place: we should not be shocked. We should know very well this happened. 

The discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children should be no more surprising than finding a bullwhip buried in Parchman, Mississippi. No more surprising than finding the extermination rolls in Auschwitz. No more shocking than bones and bullets found at Baba Yar. 

There are almost certainly many more sites like this, all over Canada and in many parts of the United States, where similar institutions were called Indian Boarding Schools.

Canada, this is part of our history. 

It doesn't matter that we didn't personally perpetrate the crimes.

It doesn't matter if our ancestors were not on the continent at the time. 

It doesn't matter if we only learned about the Residential Schools a few years ago.

The Residential Schools and their continuing legacy is part of Canada

Most of us enjoy living in Canada, including those who are highly critical of it. We enjoy and benefit from a world that was created by colonialism. By theft. By murder. By genocide. All Canadians must accept and reckon with that legacy. 

We can't pick and choose which parts of Canada, which moments of history, we want to own. We own it all. 

How much does Canada officially resist owning this legacy? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that Indigenous people in (first) British North America and (later) Canada were the victims of "cultural genocide". 

"Cultural genocide" is not a thing.

"Cultural genocide" is not legally recognized by any international body. If we read the definition of genocide -- for example, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum -- and we look honestly at Canadian history, it's quite clear that Canada engaged in the purposeful genocide of the Indigenous peoples of this land.

But Canada doesn't want to wear that. Instead, it hides behind this qualifier -- as if it were possible to kill a people's culture without actually killing them. And as if the murder of a culture did not actually murder people.

An image that burns in my brain

When I took the University of Alberta's Indigenous Canada MOOC, I was incredibly moved and shaken by the unit on the Residential Schools. 

Quoting myself:

One of the characteristics shared by almost all Indigenous cultures is an emphasis on family, usually extended family. In oral traditions, knowledge is transmitted directly from generation to generation. Skills -- hunting, gardening, cooking, building, healing, everything you can think of -- are learned by observation and participation. Values, morals, and ethics -- all the guideposts of life -- are transmitted through storytelling and observation. From birth to death, every aspect of life is shared communally, and done for the benefit of the new generations, to build for the future.

Now imagine a culture such as this with no children. Villages where all the children have been stolen. The trauma and grief and shame left behind. The despair, the helplessness.

At the same time, imagine generations of children who have never been exposed to familial love, or at best that love was a distant memory. Generations of children who have been raised institutionally, with harsh discipline, meager food rations, minimal health care, forced lessons intended for wage-slavery, and of course, verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Generations of children who have been forbidden to speak their own languages or learn anything about their cultures -- and who are indoctrinated to believe that their original cultures are dirty and shameful.

When these children become adults, how can they know how to raise families of their own? They have not seen normal parenting. They lack the supports of their culture and communities. They know only shame and abuse.

These entwined conditions are at the root of the intergenerational trauma that echoes through Indigenous communities in countless destructive ways. The wonder is how people and their cultures have survived at all -- a testament to the determination and resiliency of the human spirit.

The image of whole villages and communities where all the children have been stolen burns in my brain. Imagine that in your own community! Imagine you and all your peers were forced into institutions, even though your parents were alive, even though you had loving relatives who could provide a good home.

Imagine your children being forcibly removed from your home -- not because you were incapable of raising them, but because you are -- fill in the blank. Your children being stolen from you because you are Irish. Because you are Black. Because you are Jewish, or Catholic, or an atheist.

Fuck the haters

Since the discovery in Kamloops was reported to the public, Canada has been gripped by a paroxysm of response. The government -- both Federal and of BC -- declared a week of mourning. Flags have been at half-staff. Resources for survivors who almost certainly have been retraumatized by the discovery are being shared widely. There was (thankfully) a moving tribute before an NHL playoff game.

My inbox is full of responses: from my union, Amnesty International, both my federal and provincial representatives, and of course from any Indigenous groups I follow.

Along with these responses comes an inevitable backlash. Racist right-wingers, without a doubt, are flooding local and social media with ignorance and contempt. These are the people who believe Indigenous people should "get over it", who believe First Nations "get a free ride", and subscribe to degrading stereotypes (many of which apply to plenty of white people!).

In some contexts, I can speak to why we must care about this history, and why Indigenous people cannot and should not just "get over it". 

But not right now. 

I am avoiding any space where I might hear or see this type of response. Because my reaction will not be measured, calm, or professional. Fuck them.

Facts are still emerging

The children's remains were found by a private company using ground-penetrating radar. Many people and organizations are calling for ground-penetrating radar to be used at the sites of all former Residential Schools.

I haven't seen good information about why this operation was taking place. It does not appear to have been organized by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. 

The remains were not, as some early reports suggested, found on a construction site; the former site of the largest Residential School in Canada was not being excavated. Whether the site will now be excavated will be up to the Nation. 

You may find this summary from The Globe and Mail very useful: The Kamloops residential school's unmarked graves: What we know about the children's remains, and Canada's reaction so far.

How can I be an ally?

I've been trying to write this post since the find was announced. When I sit down to write, I am overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by emotion, by the sheer magnitude of the horror embedded in our past, by our inability to adequately address it. 

Coincidentally, right now I am reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer. 

Coincidentally, the horrific discovery came on the eve of Canada's National Indigenous People's History Month, which culminates in National Indigenous People's Day, on the summer solstice. I am part of a team that created this Indigenous People's History Month Challenge.

Coincidentally, I see the continuing effects of the Residential Schools every day.  

It is very, very sad. I wish I could do more.

Education as an act of Reconciliation

Many useful resources can be found through the Vancouver Island Regional Library's National Indigenous People's History Month Challenge.

I highly recommend participating in Indigenous Canada, the online course offered by the University of Alberta. It's a 12-week course, and each unit can be easily done in the course of a week. You can enrol for free; to obtain a certificate is only $65. If your employer has an education fund, you can ask about reimbursement.

Statement from BCGEU Indigenous Advisory Committee statement on discovery at Kamloops Indian Residential School:

On behalf of the BCGEU Provincial Executive Indigenous Advisory Committee and all Indigenous members of the BCGEU, we express our deepest condolences to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, the survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School and the kin of those who never came home. The BCGEU's Indigenous members across the province, including members of the committee, have shared their stories about the impacts of residential schools on their personal lives and in their communities. We all carry heavy hearts especially at this time.

We know that the discovery made by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is not an isolated case; with almost 140 IRS operating across the country over 150 years it is inevitable that other mass graves exist on other territories and that they will be found. In fact, survivors of Indian Residential Schools from across Turtle Island (North America) have shared their lived experiences, including stories of graves similar to the one found this week. In Canada specifically, these stories are reflected in The Survivors Speak: A report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) and the transcripts from past reports, such as the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996).

In the coming days and weeks as we grieve and heal together, it is critical that every Canadian understand settler colonialism—including the tragic legacy of the Indian Residential School system—not as a historical event or a closed chapter but as an ongoing reality that continues to damage Indigenous lives and communities from coast to coast to coast. The last IRS was shut down in 1996, but the removal of Indigenous children—and the cycle of harm perpetuated in families and communities denied the opportunity to raise and protect their children—continues to this day. While roughly 150,000 children went through Canada's residential school system between 1890 and 1996, more than 130,000 Indigenous children are currently in Canada's child welfare system. 

As the BCGEU Provincial Executive Indigenous Advisory Committee we call on all levels of government to do the following:

1. To provide adequate and sustainable mental health and addictions services to Indigenous Peoples on and off reserve in both rural and urban areas of British Columbia and Canada.  

2. To provide First Nations communities with the necessary funding to conduct ongoing searches of the graves of children who lost their lives in these schools in British Columbia and the rest of Canada. 

3. To fully implement all 94 calls to action from Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (2015); all 231 calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019); including providing adequate funding as well as enforcement, reporting and accountability mechanisms to support implementation . 

4. To legislate full adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), with full support and collaboration from Indigenous Peoples.

From the BCGEU's more than 82,000 members, we would like to share our message of grief and urge all Canadians to join and support us as this healing carries on. BCGEU members and others who want to show their solidarity can:

1. Wear orange shirts during the month of June, which is Indigenous Peoples Recognition month, to honour the children and support the survivors and families impacted by the Indian Residential Schools.

2. Call on your local MLA and MP to integrate the calls to action in the TRC report, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the calls for justice of the MMIWG report into their work, and to advocate for the necessary funding to conduct further searches for grave sites across British Columbia and Canada. Click here to find your MLA and click here to find your MP.

As Indigenous Peoples we have survived government's extraordinary genocidal policies of all levels of government and we will continue to survive, as our ancestors did. We hear the drums in our hearts that give us strength, and we honour the lives of our children who lost their lives and their families across British Columbia and Canada. May they be at peace.


allan said...

Protesters on Sunday toppled a statute of Egerton Ryerson — one of the key figures behind Canada’s residential school system, which separated some 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes — amid growing anger over the Catholic Church’s refusal to issue an apology for its role in the abuse students faced. . . .

Since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared news of the unmarked burial site on May 27, members of the student body and Indigenous communities have renewed calls on the university to change its name and remove Ryerson’s statue.

In the wake of the statue’s toppling, university President Mohamed Lachemi said in a statement that it would “not be restored or replaced.” . . .

Pressure has also been mounting on the Catholic Church to issue a formal apology for its role in running schools such as Kamloops Indian Residential School and to hand over all the records that might help to identify unmarked burial sites and the students who died or went missing. The Church has so far refused to do so, despite a request from Trudeau at a meeting in 2017.

“That there are still church records that have not been revealed or made available … is a sad commentary on the lack of the commitment by the Catholic Church to allow us to investigate this further,” Murray Sinclair, a former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told a parliamentary committee last week.

Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, told reporters that she wants an apology from the Vatican. “We do want an apology — a public apology — not just for us, but for the world,” she said.

Pope Francis on Sunday said during his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square that he was pained by news of the remains . . . But he conspicuously fell short of issuing a formal apology.

“We’re all pained and saddened. Who isn’t? This is a worldwide travesty,” Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, Bobby Cameron, told Reuters, in response to Francis’s Sunday comments. “How hard is it for the pope to say: ‘I’m very sorry for the way our organization treated the First Nations people, the First Nations students during those times, we are sorry, we pray.’"

Trudeau, who is a Catholic, said last week that he was “deeply disappointed” in the Church’s refusal to apologize.

allan said...

A logical assumption at this point would be the only people attending Catholic Church services in 2021 are unrepentant pedophiles and sex traffickers and the most racist, sadistic sociopaths imaginable. Because if you're an actual follower of Christ, you'd be looking at the Catholic Church and thinking: "These people are the exact fucking opposite of Christ." . . . And yet . . .

allan said...

Well, it looks like *someone* was triggered by this post.

laura k said...

Well, it looks like *someone* was triggered by this post.

We can always count on our resident racist troll. Thanks for fielding that for me. I haven't read a comment of his in years.