By Laura Keil, Publisher/Editor
The discovery of the graves of 215 children near the former Kamloops Residential School has sent shock waves of grief across the country and confirms the haunting stories of many residential school survivors.
Indigenous children from the region we live in would have been sent to that school. And as residents of these lands, it is personal to all of us.
That that many children died and were not even given a proper grave or repatriated to their communities, but rather hidden away in a mass grave, is a Canadian-made atrocity. Ripped from their families and boarded in schools run by so-called religious orders and made to suffer abuse at the hands of sadistic “do-gooders” dispatched to annihilate “the Indian in the child,” these children were innocent and paid a horrible price.
After a brief time, we want to look away.
Even now, reading this, wouldn’t you rather be reading something else? We want to look away because we are just one person. We want to get on with our life. Life is so hard as it is. And we are just one person. How can we make a difference and what difference would that be?
These are the questions that may or may not have been asked by people in a position to say or do something about what they witnessed or participated in at these so-called schools, many of which were more akin to concentration camps.
It is easier to look away, to think—maybe I’m wrong? It would be futile anyway… I might lose my job, be ridiculed by my peers, look “soft.”
It is so easy to see the past as a distant country, foreign and full of bizarre behaviours we cannot relate to. That could never happen now, we are better now. But what would it have taken for it to be better then?
Going against the cultural and institutional grain is never easy. When we stand up for unpopular beliefs, we often stand alone. We are ridiculed, bullied, maligned, gas-lit. Whether it be standing up against racism, environmental degradation, bullying, or violence, humans are still very much animals. Our DNA has instilled in us an instinct that isolating ourselves is dangerous. But progress and goodness never came from someone full of fear, conforming to a system designed to harm and brainwash children, in essence, committing cultural genocide. Progress and goodness arise from cross-cultural understanding, from curiosity. From openness to new ways of seeing things. We have to believe there is something to gain. And there is.
For my Master’s project at Journalism School I studied Cree Immersion programs both on and off reserve in my home province of Saskatchewan. It was enlightening to see the incredible education programs designed to enrich children with their language and culture. But always there was the specter of residential schools—an understandable distrust of formal education among parents and grandparents. More than distrust—PTSD. Both physical and mental injuries. I spoke to one residential school survivor who, among other things, said when he and his friends went into the yard to play Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be the Indian. The voice of this 60-year-old man cracked with still-raw emotion. So many hurts. A mountain of cuts.
We want to look away.
But looking away does not heal the wounds, does not bridge the divide, does not re-instill our pride in this now-tarnished country.
Non-indigenous people must not look away until we have chosen one step, one step that will be the first of many. One step we will take to make the world a little brighter in memory of those children lost and with an appreciation for the Indigenous children today, who bear a legacy beyond their understanding. Whether it’s educating yourself further, or gently calling out a family member on their ignorance, or making a donation to an organization, or deciding this year will be the first year you’ll attend a pow-wow, choose one thing. If you can, do something in-person. Perhaps support an Indigenous tourism organization. Learn a few words in Secwepemctsin. Go to a pow-wow that is open to anyone and try one of those Indian Tacos. Let the drum beat sink into your skin and study the chicken dance. See the feathers on the regalia move with the dancer’s keen movements, his concentration far off with his ancestors. His heartbeat thrumming with the drums and the strength of all those who came before him and are still with him.