We remember those that a residential school wanted us to forget.
By Steven Sandor | May 31, 2021
It is a difficult number to comprehend. For many of us who grew up in small prairie towns, we went to schools that didn’t even have 215 kids, total. So, the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a British Columbia residential school site is a difficult thing to process.
It should be hard to process. The magnitude of it should disturb us. But, importantly, we need to remember that it is not new. We know that other residential school sites have been excavated, and that remains have been found. Top 40 alumna Kisha Supernant told us back in 2019 what it was like to excavate a residential-school site, the emotional toll that it takes. National Indigenous History Month begins in June, and it begins with a period of mourning, of Canadians wondering really how far we’ve come.
Memorials have been hastily made across Canada, including our Legislature grounds. That’s where these pictures were taken. There’s nothing we’d like to see more than these tributes to be made permanent, for the shoes to be secured to these institutional plazas, to sit next to statues of monarchs, busts of politicians and war memorials.
But we need more than memorials. These deaths were not the result of an accident, or the actions of one person. This was institutionalized violence, casual brutality that was carried out and covered up. It needed a conspiracy to make it work; it needed a public that was willing not to see what was happening within their nation. The bodies were buried, and the story was meant to stop there.
So, as we enter a month where the recognition of Canada’s Indigenous history moved to the forefront, it’s time to do more than make acknowledgments and post orange circles on our social-media profiles. It’s not enough to say we need to accept Indigenous history as our shared history. We need to embrace this history, we need our kids to understand that the orange shirt isn’t something that’s worn on a school day to symbolize some sugar-coated version of reconciliation. We need to understand that our history is bloody and ugly.
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We can make all the platitudes we want about the need to heal, about where we go from here. We have to acknowledge, finally, that these aren’t wounds that easily close. These aren’t things that are immediately made better because they’ve been acknowledged in a history book or have been discussed by a Royal Commission. We have to accept that families have been broken, that societies were torn apart.
For too long, too many of us have said “we understand you” or “we hear you” when it comes to the history of residential schools in Canada. Truth is, for those of us who know of residential schools as a chapter in a Grade 8 history book, we don’t. We don’t know what it’s like to be mocked for our language, have our traditions discarded, to have our children taken. The truth is, we can’t possibly empathize. So, if hearing this news makes you miserable, if it ruins your day — that’s actually where understanding begins. It’s OK to weep for 215 kids you never got the chance to meet. It’s OK to feel sadness that stretches deep into the pit of your stomach. We need to feel that pain, in order to even slightly understand the pain that’s been inflicted on others.
We may say there’s no such thing as monsters. But we know deep inside that we aren’t telling the truth.