Trigger warning: This story contains references to details of violence against children.
On Friday, 215 pairs of shoes were placed on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Yellow sandals, black Nikes with pink swooshes, and moccasins were scattered amongst flowers and teddy bears. Organized by artist Tamara Bell, it was one of many vigils across Canada in honour of 215 Indigenous children, some as young as three, whose remains were found on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The discovery of the bodies was made by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation after it commissioned ground-penetrating radar to search the property of one of the biggest residential schools in the country. National outcry and shock rolled in slowly, with a flood social-media posts and meaningless 280-character messages of condolences from politicians and pundits alike.
But amid the public mourning was an undertone of too little, too late. Because while some settlers may just be waking up to the realities of colonization and the systemic genocide of Indigenous people, Indigenous communities have been living through this for 500 years.
While some settlers may just be waking up to the realities of colonization and the systemic genocide of Indigenous people, Indigenous communities have been living through this for 500 years.
“Indigenous communities are not surprised by this,” Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society (IRSSS), tells Refinery29 Canada, noting, as many others have said, that there are likely “similar unmarked graveyards attached to a vast majority of the residential schools throughout British Columbia and Canada.” White continues, “The rest of Canada will be shocked by this, because there's always been different narratives regarding Indian residential schools; [but] for the Indigenous community, we’ve heard people's testimonials about their lived experience.”
As Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe), director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, wrote in the Globe and Mail. “...we should be sad; it is horrific. But it is not shocking. In fact, it is the opposite — a too-common unearthing of the legacy, and enduring reality, of colonialism in Canada. To the degree it is shocking, it is evidence of how much learning there is still to do.”
Canada’s residential school system dates back to the 1870s, when the Catholic Church forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families in an attempt to strip them from their culture. These children were sent to institutions under the guise of education, but instead endured violence as well as physical, mental, and sexual abuse. These schools — the last of which closed in 1996, only 25 years ago — created a harmful cycle of intergenerational trauma. The government apologized to former residential school students in 2008.
It’s a history that many Canadians are unfamiliar and unable to grapple with (or unwilling to educate themselves on) because it goes against everything we are taught in history class. “Canada is supposed to be a diverse country and accepting of everyone,” White says. “This shatters that whole perception of who we are as Canadians, and that hits you at the core.”
Here’s the bare minimum Canadians should know: In 2015, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that created a historical record of the residential school system and its lasting impacts, called residential schools a cultural genocide, and recommended 94 calls to action, including funding for language initiatives, funding for new and existing healing centres, and appointing a public inquiry into the victimization of Indigenous women and girls.
As part of the 2015 TRC findings, the federal government was told that it needs to move from “apology to action,” and yet — six years later — little has actually been done. “Six years ago, we were marching the streets of Ottawa for change with the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission],” White says. “How many of those recommendations have been implemented? How many have been held up by the bureaucracy that’s slower than a snail?” While she acknowledges that there have been small steps here and there, she points to the clean drinking water crisis and lack of resolution or support for MMIWG, as indicators of how much further we have to go to even begin to think about progress or reconciliation.
“I am constantly fighting [for] more resources,” White adds. “To put that to the Canadian government and say, ‘why is it that we as an Indigenous organization at the grassroots level are constantly having to try and fight to fix something that they destroyed?’
On May 31, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that there will be more support for survivors of residential schools, although what exactly that support looks like is still unclear. Many criticized the Trudeau government for its initial response to last week’s news and for taking almost four days to lower flags on federal buildings to half mast. (It may seem inconsequential, but lowering the flags is a symbol of mourning and respect.)
Trudeau’s personal response on Twitter failed to acknowledge the ongoing harm being perpetrated against Indigenous communities that is still very much part of our present, by offering thoughts and prayers and referring to the findings as “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
Looking forward, White says there needs to be an inquiry into the deaths of children at residential schools run by an independent entity, but funded by the government. (FWIW, in 2009 the TRC requested $1.5 million in funding to search for unmarked graves. It was denied under Stephen Harper's government.) “The basic thing that we can hope for is to acknowledge all of those missing children that did not make it home. And it could be as simple as identifying them and bringing them back to their communities in a way that honours them. That's the least we can do.”
Refinery29 Canada has reached out to the Office of the Prime Minister. This piece will be updated with a response.
If you are a residential school survivor and need support, please contact the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, at 1-866-925-4419.