Over the past few weeks, all of Canada has been forced to come face to face with the legacy of institutional racism, genocide, and horror that was / is the reality of Indigenous peoples of Canada.
At first I made a deliberate choice to sit with the horror in silence, not wanting to add another well-meaning white voice, but rather, wanting to read and take my guidance from the Indigenous community. I found this post on how to support Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc really insightful, as well as a CBC article featuring a survivor of a B.C. residential school that calls for action.
However, as I read other accounts of atrocities, commingled with uninformed, unkind, and inhuman comments and responses, I felt a deep ocean of feeling bubbling up. An ocean threatening to engulf me. Rage, horror, grief, overwhelming sadness, and hopelessness. And with these feelings was birthed a motivation to write, not to assuage grief and remove guilt––to look for quick fixes or patting myself on the back––but to look square in the face of these events and sit in the discomfort and challenge for those like me.
In order to understand the story of the Kamloops Residential School, you need to place it in the broader story of colonization. This is not an easy task for many like me. We have been sheltered from the weight of negativity that colonization brought to Canada. It requires re-education of history and its connections to the present day. This takes time and effort.
For me the process of re-educating myself to the effects of colonialism started in 2017 as Canada was preparing to celebrate 150 years of Confederation. It struck me that not everyone in Canada would have the same outlook on those celebrations. It caused me to look deeper into the issues that Indigenous peoples of Canada face on a daily basis. I read books, took a free Native Studies course through the University of Alberta, and started listening to Indigenous voices on these topics.
It astounded me how much suffering had been (and continues to be) glossed over. I was never taught about treaties made with Indigenous leaders that were cast aside when convenient. I was never taught about housing conditions on reservations, access to clean water issues, incarceration rates, suicide and mental health problems, or warfare tactics such as the giving of blankets infested with small pox. When I learned about the near-extinction of the buffalo, I never learned about the deliberate decimation of buffalo herds to eradicate a way of life for people who relied on these animals for their survival.
As I continued to read and to learn, it became more and more abundantly clear that the romanticized history of the founding of Canada that I had been taught (and happily swallowed) was heavily redacted.
And then I learned about the residential schools. That I was never aware of this as I grew up astounds me. I grew up in Brantford, Ontario, where the first residential school was established in 1831 (closing in 1970). Not only did I attend high school down the street from this historical site, I was literally in high school at the same time as students in Saskatchewan were attending the Gordon Residential school (the last of its kind), and nobody told us.
I do not cite my lack of truthful education as an excuse for my ignorance. I have a responsibility to educate myself, but as I reflect on the woeful lack of information I received, it feels very deliberate. So in response to that, I write this reflection to anyone like myself, sitting in that classroom in Brantford, oblivious to the horrors happening even then.
Wake up! You need to use your God-given intelligence to see through the half-truths you’ve been fed. You know that history is written by the victors. That the voices of the crushed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the murdered, and raped don’t get a say in how the story is told. You’ve learned about totem poles, tomahawks, and trade routes from people descended from those so foolish, they named the people they found Indians, and the bison they called buffalo. The nation you love was built on the back of genocide, of atrocities done to the people here.
You have the privilege of being able to look away. You don’t have to face the daily reality of systemic oppression, government policies standing against you, generational trauma, limits to your education, healthcare, or employment opportunities.
But I implore you: don’t brush it under the carpet and look the other way.
I want you to face what the residential school system did, and the trauma that endures to this day. Stories from survivors tell us about being ripped from their families, being stripped of all their links to home, having their language, customs, and culture taken away from them. They tell us about being forced to scrub their skin with lye, to make their skin more white. About the beatings, the rapes and molestation, the forced abortions when priests inpregnated their victims.
The founder of the residential school system would say that the objective of the system was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” He would go on to say, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.” It is not surprising, then, that care for the children under this system frequently resulted in simply “killing the Indian,” with no regard for the [person]. (1)
I want you to think about the lasting effects the residential school system would have on the Indigenous community. Leaving aside the rampant other abuses the Indigenous peoples would receive at the hands of both the government and the community at large, I think that the residential school system may have caused some of the most significant trauma that we see playing out even today.To be stripped of your culture, your language, your home, and the protection and love of your family is beyond cruel, but to then endure the abuses listed above is unconscionable. This was intentional, and deliberate, cultural (and physical) genocide.
But I have to add yet another layer to this heritage of pain. This school system was carried out in many cases by the church. Protestant and Catholic leaders were often the principals and headmasters to dole out this education of assimilation in the name of Christ. I am sickened even now as I write this to think that the church was complicit in these horrors. But testimony after testimony from survivors name priests, nuns, and other church leaders as the perpetrators. Let that sink in. From some false sense of duty, the church traded the life and safety of these children for the chance to proselytize them.
From some false sense of duty, the church traded the life and safety of these children for the chance to proselytize them.
It is no wonder that suicide and mental health problems, addiction issues, mistrust of the government and the church are rampant among Indigenous communities. These issues also lead to negative effects in education, employment opportunities, and high incarceration rates, which have tremendous effects on communities. It’s not surprising, then, that children who only knew sexual abuse, beatings and false love, grew up with deep-rooted trauma that affects their ability to maintain healthy relationships and raise healthy families.
It is enough to have endured all this, but to then be labeled a liar for recounting this history, or ostracized as lazy, worthless, or sub-human, unworthy of help, support, and love, adds yet another layer of trauma to a people so full of it already.
So, with the backdrop of this brief recounting of some context, we come to the events of the past few weeks. After repeated attempts since the 2000s to lobby officials to search the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation was finally given permission to use ground-penetrating radar to find the remains of what would be discovered to be 215 children. Through much of the dialogue this week I have heard the phrase “nobody knew they were there.” My mind immediately goes to the families. They knew their children never came home; they knew the deep pain of grief as they suspected without proof. The officials who put them there knew.
Two images have repeatedly gone through my mind as I have grieved and reflected this week. The first is connected to the childrens’ shoes used as memorials all across Canada this week. Immediately my mind made a connection between these shoes and the famous images from Auschwitz of the shoes of children killed in the Holocaust. No one denies the sacredness of life taken in German concentration camps. Or if they did, they would be laughed out of hearing. But I have heard many people deny the purposeful, hateful actions of school administrators attempting to assimilate these children.
This connection was brought home to me all the more when I read this week of accounts of finding children’s remains in furnaces, beneath foundations, and stuffed into walls.
The second image comes from a phrase from Genesis 4:10, after Cain killed his brother Abel. The Lord said to him, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
These kids, as young as three years old, have lain in the ground since at least 1969 when the school was closed. For at least 52 years, their blood has been crying out for justice. For an acknowledgement and a reckoning.
I implore you: don’t look away.
Look full in the face of what has been laid bare to all of Canada. Many of us have the privilege of being able to look away. But don’t. This can be a watershed moment for all of us, to take stock of the evil that seeped into the very foundations of our nation and to not shy away, but to act. There are communities today that have no access to drinkable water, something considered by the United Nations as a basic human right. There are communities ravaged by the traumas of colonialism, right here, right now. And not only colonialism, but hate done in the name of the gospel.
I don’t know how to best help these communities. I know that I can pray to a God who sees them, sees the hurt and the pain, and is willing to sit in it with them, as he ministers to them by his Spirit. But in the spirit of James 2:16, to simply say, “Go, be warm and well fed” without addressing the real, and present, physical needs, is nothing. So I point you to what others have written on this subject.
It is no longer acceptable to say, “No one ever told me before.” You have a responsibility to learn, to educate yourself, and to love your neighbour.
(1) National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, vol. 6810, file 470-2-3, vol. 7, 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3).