***Content Note: This post will be discussing the First Nations Residential School system in Canada, specifically the Kamloops Indian Residential School and the recent discovery of unmarked graves on the school property. This will include issues of child abuse, neglect, and the hypocrisy that can make these things possible. I won’t be going into graphic detail, but I will be dwelling on the implications and the broader picture quite a bit because that’s where my thoughts are lingering and I seriously needed to get some things off my chest. If this is something that you might find upsetting, you may want to give this one a pass. Take care of yourself, there will be another deconstruction post coming up soon.***
I’ve written about the Residential School system before in this blog, although it’s a subject I’m really reluctant to approach. I’m not Indigenous, I have no personal or family connection to the Residential Schools and the only people I know who do (including a now retired member of my Regiment) are acquaintances rather than close friends. To be blunt, this is not my story. It’s an important story that needs to be told, and, given the subjects of this blog, it’s one that I need to address. But it’s not my story.
It’s a story of other people, many of whom suffered terribly and far too many of whom died. This is the main reason why, outside of that one post, I limit any mention of the Residential Schools to the necessities of the blog, and keep the editorializing to a minimum. I have lots of things I’d like to say on the subject, but it’s not the place of a middle class settler/colonizer to lead the discussion. I need to approach with respect and tread with caution.
Last week they found the unmarked graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Some of the children were as young as three.
Two hundred and fifteen children.
The school itself was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, at which point the Federal Government took over until 1978 when the school was closed. While it may be years (if ever) before exact causes of death can be ascertained, the fact that these graves were unrecorded strongly suggests that these are likely children who died from abuse or neglect, and that their secret burial was an effort to hide the truth of their deaths. Their fate was unrecorded (at least, in any records that we have access to) and their bodies buried without any marker or memorial. Their parents were never notified.
Details are sparse. It’s not clear yet if this is one mass grave of a number of separate sites. If the bodies come predominantly from one time period or one particular nation. The school mostly took in children from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, but at various points in history it was common for Indigenous children to be moved to schools across the country so some of the victims could come from any number of Bands or Nations.
Back in 2015, when the National Commission for Truth & Reconciliation investigated, they estimated – based on what information they could find – that at least fifty children died of abuse and neglect during the school’s existence. Whether those fifty children are among the bodies discovered or whether they represent additional names on the list, it’s clear that the NCTR’s investigation barely scratched the surface.
Amidst the shock and the grief, the memorials and tradition that try to comfort, I keep finding myself coming back to one really disturbing question: Who was telling the staff members where to bury the bodies?
I mean, it wasn’t a single disaster or massacre that killed two hundred a fifteen children. They died over months and years, as multiple generations of “teachers” came and went. It’s likely that the abuse went in cycles, with periods of (relative) calm as some of the worst perpetrators retired, followed by a new wave of death that would have to be concealed. Yet for all those years that passed, it seems that there was always a procedure in place to deal with the horror.
Records would be altered, the body of the child removed, hidden and then buried. From then on everyone in a position to know would keep their mouths shut. More than that, they would have to lie should anyone come asking and to punish any child at the school who might speak up.
And it worked. And it was perpetuated. It was a kind of dark heritage passed on through generations of so-called “teachers” and “caregivers” who ran the school: That the death of one of their charges was not something to be concerned about. There was a system in place. People knew how to take care of it. There was a spot on the property where the digging wouldn’t be noticed. When the supervisors grew old, the younger ones would step into their shoes and carry on the tradition.
Take a moment to consider the sheer enormity of that.
The school was finally shut down the same year I was born. For most of my life the secret was kept. Sure, there were some Indigenous people who were speaking of what happened. Surviving students trying to make their truth heard. But nobody was listening, or at least, nobody who could do something about it. The overwhelming majority of those “teachers” and “caregivers” lived their lives in comfort and peace and are now safely beyond the reach of any human justice.
Right now people are leaving pairs of children’s shoes out as a kind of memorial to commemorate those that were lost. Those whose loss was not even recorded thanks to a process designed to erase their existence. In Thunder Bay, a Sacred Fire was lit. A crisis line for abuse survivors is being inundated with calls. These actions are heartbreaking to watch, even as it’s uplifting in its dignity and courage.
It’s not my place to speak of someone else’s grief. I tried to write to write something expressing my sympathy and condolences to the people of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and to Residential School survivors and descendants everywhere, and it didn’t work. As much as this news grieves me, everything I wrote came out as trite and sterile, like those carefully worded statements from the government. Appropriately sympathetic but also vague and impersonal.
So I’m going to change tactics and address my fellow ‘white’ people instead. My fellow Settler/Colonizers. We can’t let this go. Indigenous people are unable to let it go, so we got to grip this thing just as tight. We ask why “the Residential School issue” keeps coming up over and over again, it’s because they’re unable to let this kind of trauma go until there is a reckoning. Until there is, well, Truth & Reconciliation. So the rest of us need to grab hold of this as well. We need to push just as hard for the truth to come out, for all the victims to be found and for the guilty be punished.
This interview here is exactly what we don’t want to be doing. That link goes to an interview by the Catholic Archbishop for Ottawa-Cornwall diocese on the CBC from earlier this week, and I got to say that interviewer Robyn Bresnahan did an excellent job of drawing out one weasle-y denial after another out of this mouldy old dishrag of a human being.
“I don’t personally understand the Residential Schools system and what happened there and why it happened […] It’s a reality that I’m not familiar with.”
“There was something flawed there from the very beginning. The little I know, the government is the one that called on the Catholic Church to help out. The Catholic Church [then] seeks the help from the religious communities at the time who’s mission was to care for the poor, to provide education, and to help the sick…And a lot of the Residential Schools were – to my understanding – they were run by the religious communities so the Church itself, the diocese and the Bishop would have little knowledge of what was going on…”
“When you’re dealing with something that’s years past, you have to provide time for people to tell their grief and where they’re hurting and to accompany them in that.”
“The whole Church is suffering from this.”
Q: “The church is suffering?”
Q: “How so?”
“Because it’s part of who we are. Students in those schools, some of them were Catholic. That’s…they’re part of our family.”
[Transcribed by myself, elipseses separate different parts of the interview. Quotes not presented in chronological order.]
It’s all there in a twelve minute interview. A detailed list of how not to respond to a tragedy your institution is responsible for: Feigned ignorance. Protecting church hierarchy by casting blame both on the Federal Government, and the Religious Order that was directly running the school. Reasonable-sounding calls for dialogue and Listening Circles without actually offering words that might comfort the victims. Talking about starting to listen while ignoring the fact that Survivors have been talking about this for years, and that it’s now the church’s turn to start speaking. Crying out about how the church was wounded while ignoring the fact that it was a self-inflicted wound, the only way from which they can heal begins with that oh so Catholic practice of confession.
And just in case you lost the narrative in the midst of all this bullshit, let me remind you. The Catholic church ran this school until 1969 when the Federal Government took over. The last point at which the church can hold responsibility was only fifty two years ago, meaning that there are likely “teachers” and “caregivers” who are still alive today. All of this smoke that the Archbishop is blowing? It’s being blown to protect potential child murderers.
This is what we can’t do. We have to resist being like this.
One of the things I try to do on this blog is study the history of atrocity. What makes human beings turn on each other? What can drive an otherwise normal and healthy person to murder an absolute stranger? Part of this is professional concern. George Orwell described his future totalitarian regime with the image of a boot, stamping on a human face, forever. As a Sergeant in the CAF I have to consider the possibility that my foot might one day occupy that boot. I have to prepare for what I will need to do if I am ever presented with a face to stamp on.
However, Orwell’s dystopian future was a real-life fact for hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children. Far from my own hypothetical thought exercises thousands of children, some as young as three, lived the experience of that human face. Somebody a lot like me was wearing that boot. I have to remember that. We have to remember. We can’t let this go.
***Today’s Featured Image is a picture of the Kamloops Indian Residential School taken around the time that the Federal Government took over from the Catholic Church. Source.***
2 thoughts on “We can’t let this go…”
The horror of this is not that Canada “didn’t know,” it rather is that White Canada has ignored consistent evidence that:
1. The residential schools were being mismanaged;
2. Student deaths were happening at unacceptable rates;
3. Students were being mistreated (yes, this is an understatement of colossal proportions);
4. The education was of lower standards than what the provinces were delivering to other students
From the very beginnings of the program. There were reports filed in Parliament, etc. No one cared. And then EVERYTIME it makes the news, we have the balls to act surprised.
The national mythology of Canada is that we are a nice people, gradually expanding to cover the country without violence. While Canada did not engage in a 200 year series of wars against the First Nations (we took a pause from the Seven Years War to the Red River Expedition), our expansion involved pushing small groups to remote regions away from “civilized” places, initially to help with resource extraction, then when they were no longer needed, off to reservations in economically unfavourably areas. We dealt with the issue, by ignoring it.
We’re not going to actually be able to deal with our past unless we actually face it instead of forgetting about it until the next time.