It's not just a chapter, it's an origin story
On the Kamloops Residential School, truth, and reconciliation
I know this isn’t the usual day when I show up in your inbox or even typical content but plans and schedules and routines can be damned today. We need to huddle up and talk, don’t we? We need to light a few candles and tell some truth.
The world is reeling from the discovery of the bodies of 215 children, buried in an unmarked grave, at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. just a few hours away from where we live here in Abbotsford. The discovery of this mass grave confirms the oral histories of the elders and survivors. This may be the story that has captured headlines for a moment. It won’t be the last. Most of these kids are likely undocumented, there has been no justice for them.
Generations of Indigenous elders and activists and witnesses have told us that these sites exist. This truth is sitting in Volume 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report right this moment. We simply haven’t cared enough to mourn and lament well, let alone pursue justice for those kids and their families.
There were 139 such schools across Canada; it’s estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit kids between the ages of 4 and 16 were sent to these schools over the years they operated.1 Most of us can point to the local residential school in our communities - some have been abandoned, others torn down, some were repurposed. I can go for a walk through the foundations of one of these schools, stand on the stone steps to buildings long gone and look at the graveyard on the hillside.
The last residential school was closed in 1996. Basically: yesterday.
Seven generations of Indigenous children were removed from their homes, their parents, their communities, and their families to be placed in these government-sponsored religious schools so the “Indian” could be educated out of them. Children were stolen from their homes, forbidden to speak their languages, cut off from their culture and their way of life, separated from their families, malnourished and cold, worked relentlessly, between 90 and 100% were horribly abused in every way – physically and sexually, spiritually and emotionally. Conservative estimates place mortality at 50-60% for these kids. The generations of trauma cannot be underestimated.
Some of the kids in that grave in Kamloops are as young as 3 years old.
Even writing that, I feel like I could crawl out of my skin and scream. Throw up. Lay down and never get up. Rend my garments, throw ashes, wail.
Babies, babies, babies.
“This is a dark chapter in our history.”
By now, I have lost count how many times I’ve heard that phrase. It comes from sombre news anchors, journalists on location, government officials at lecterns, members of parliament in press releases, school teachers, even church leaders, usually when they speak of the history of residential schools.
A dark chapter.
What if it isn’t simply a dark chapter, friends?
What if this is actually our origin story?
What if it isn’t ancient history but the story we’re telling right now? And what if this isn’t only happening in Canada but also in the USA and Australia and elsewhere? What if it’s not an anomaly but the policy? What if there is no way forward without making right what has come before us?
As a kid in Canada coming up through the school system, I remember that we talked about the residential schools once or twice. Vaguely studied it, did a little project about this with the same unconcern we used for the British North America Act or the arrival of Samuel de Champlain. It was a “dark chapter,” we were told, a chapter that has long closed, hardly worth more than a page or two in our written-by-white-settlers history books.
To us, this was a long time ago, it had nothing to do with us: we didn’t notice the First Nations and Métis kids in the classroom had become very quiet and withdrawn while we wrote copied notes and underreported statistics from the overhead projectors.
No one told us that there were still residential schools open and operating that blessed moment. No one named the truth that it wasn’t a residential school, not really; it was state-sanctioned genocide at concentration camps for children, explicitly intended to “kill the Indian in the child” and so erase Indigenous people and culture.
It wasn’t until my late thirties that I learned of the Sixties Scoop, which was yet another government-sponsored policy towards Indigenous children. Once the residential schools fell out of favour, the governments and churches began to quietly close them, instead opting to take Indigenous children from their homes and families to be fostered and adopted by non-Indigenous families in a campaign. Not only were these children taken from their parents and grandparents from their families, they were also stolen from their way of life, their culture, their language, their heritage, often at the mercy of the foster care system. Even their names were often lost.
A friend of mine who was herself taken by the Scoop testifies about sisters and brothers she’s never met, a mother who fell apart in their absence (who wouldn’t?), grandparents who died without ever knowing where she was or if she had even survived, and the nights of loneliness and devastating grief she endured as a four-year-old, taken from the only life she knew and dropped into a whole new world.
My friend is only a few years old than me. We are of the same generation.
Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes that “true reconciliation, justice, and shalom require a remembering of suffering, an unearthing of a shameful history and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the truth and challenges privilege, because privilege would hide the truth that creates discomfort.”2
Imagine the web attached to each child taken – their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, their communities. And yet more children are in government care now than there were at the height of the residential school system.
We speak of reconciliation in Canada. The government and church leaders seem to have all the right words.
Forgive me if I do not feel moved by words anymore.
Because we just found 215 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc kids in an unmarked grave. It’s highly likely every residential school has a similar site and yet there aren’t plans for a full truth telling or repatriation.
Because Joyce Echequan was abused and neglected and mocked as she screamed for help and then died alone in a hospital bed in Quebec.
Because Ethan Bear of the Edmonton Oilers is the subject of racist bullying at the height of hockey.
Because the Roman Catholic Church still refuses to pay compensation or make an apology that matters…all while having their schools publicly funded.3
Because there is a major gap in education for First Nations kids.4
Because we buried Tina Fontaine and no one was accountable for her death.
Because Colton Boushie was shot and his killer walked free.
Because the Canadian government is fighting compensation for survivors in court.5
there is also the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women,
there are treaty violations,
there are pipeline plans,
there are deplorable living conditions on reserves who lack even running water in one of the richest nations in the world,
the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People hasn’t yet received royal assent in Canada and Bill C-15 was roundly opposed by the Conservative Party,
there is story after story of entrenched racism in the RCMP,6
and on and on we go.
These 215 kids are not a sad anomaly; they are the official policy of Canada and the churches.
Ignorance isn’t an excuse or absolution.
This is not long ago: this is now.
This isn’t a dark chapter; this is our origin story especially if we are descended from settlers and if we are Christians.
Every step towards healing, towards justice, towards truth, towards reconciliation matters. So does every step away from it, every turned back or willful ignorance.
We have so far to go. Austin Channing Brown says “reconciliation is what we practice after we have chosen justice.”7
We still haven’t chosen justice. Not really.
How do we change the future when we won’t even fully tell the story of our past? The first thing we learned through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that we can’t have reconciliation without truth. And truth demands justice. Reconciliation is empty platitude without systemic change.
What do we do now?
Well, we mourn. We lament. We name and acknowledge suffering. We let our hearts break and put away excuses, reasons, platitudes, silence. We educate ourselves and each other. We light candles and attend vigils and lower our flags, wear orange shirts and put teddy bears on our porches and pray. on. We tell the truth to our kids. We repent. We make reparations when we can.
We actually read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and the Calls to Action and take them seriously.
We demand that the Canadian government and the churches commit funding to account for the genocide and to find the stolen children and restore them to their people. We demand that our leaders and their lawyers stop fighting survivors in court, provide equal funding, clean water and reform child welfare for Indigenous kids and families. It’s a start.
You can tweet at or write to or call your MP right now.
We stand and advocate in solidarity. Settlers can submit themselves to the wisdom of Indigenous leaders. We donate to local causes or charities or work like the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
We say every child matters. And then we act like it.
Furious and heartbroken,
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report - Reading this report is life-changing and I believe it should be required for all Canadians but particularly for those of us descended from settlers. These stories need to be carried.
The 94 Calls to Action (People of faith, pay special attention to the calls direct towards us Items 58-61. The Church has been complicit and we have to repent in action.)
The CBC is tracking the progress on these calls to action with Beyond 94 Project. Spoiler: not great, folks!
An overview of the Indian Residential School System booklet from the Anishinabek Educational Institute.
Learn whose land you are living on through the Native-Land project. Commit to learning about that nation.
You can also follow the On Canada Project for “credible, compassionate and critical info.”
Project of Heart - includes a 16 step learning module for educators
The National Student Memorial Register - “The memorial remembers, honours and acknowledges those children who died while attending a residential school in Canada.” You can search by name or by school or even map.
There are so many excellent books and podcasts, films and docs, social media influencers and story tellers right now but here are a couple (most of these should be available at your public library, too):
We Were Children - “In this feature film, the profound impact of the Canadian government’s residential school system is conveyed through the eyes of two children who were forced to face hardships beyond their years.” (Disturbing content warning)
Finding Cleo - a podcast series at CBC hosted by Connie Walker
Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice
For kids (use your discretion, of course), we have read “When We Were Alone” by David A. Robertson, “Dear Canada: These Are My Words” by Ruby Slipperjack, “Fatty Legs” by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-Fenton among others.
From Page 58 of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.