Content warning: This story contains details about Indian Residential Schools some readers may find distressing.
On Tuesday night, I took my partner, and a tobacco tie to Parliament Hill where a memorial has been set up to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
There were shoes, poems, flowers, and teddy bears; people cycled through to pay their respects and read messages of support and calls to action. Indigenous people gathered with drums, in ribbon skirts and comforted each other. My partner said to me, “seeing these cute, tiny little crocs and realizing they’ll never be filled again is heartbreaking.” That’s the point.
Last week’s horrifying discovery has captured public attention, seemingly like never before, and many are inclined to believe things are finally going to change. But framing this as a wake-up call, or even stating that Canadians are paying attention and will act, is premature and overly optimistic: Canadians have had numerous chances to "wake up,” but haven’t.
At this point, this country should know about residential schools, and acknowledge that they’re not just a part of history, they’re the present. Every Canadian should know that more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken away from their families and placed in these schools until as recently as 25 years ago with the goal to “kill the Indian in the child.” They should also know that a conservative estimate is that over 4,000 children died while in attendance.
But as the news cycle dies down, I’m inclined to believe so will their support. The photos and posts will disappear and the collective national outrage will disappear with it.
Indian residential schools are sadly just a part of this country’s horrific mistreatment of Indigenous people; from the youth suicide crisis in our communities, to the '60s scoop, to accessing clean drinking water, the list goes on. And these problems aren’t just in remote communities far from urban centres where settler Canadians can pretend they aren’t happening; Semiahmoo First Nation in B.C. recently had a 16-year boil water advisory lifted, after connecting to the nearby Metro Vancouver water line — the community is only five minutes from the city of White Rock. Does it not bother you that Indigenous people often face these kinds of conditions in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism and equality?
Sure, settler Canadians “woke up” when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report declared residential schools a cultural genocide in 2015. They “woke up” when the inquiry results into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were revealed in 2019 and also declared a genocide.
They "woke up" this past week expressing shock and disbelief, making their social media profile photos orange, putting on orange T-shirts and posting messages of solidarity. But as the news cycle dies down, I’m inclined to believe so too will their support. The photos and posts will disappear and the collective national outrage will disappear with it. Each tragedy is an opportunity to act, to make change, to do better. But so far, Canada has failed to do just that. And the cycle continues.
Many people have expressed solidarity with Indigenous people right now which is so important. But hard for me not to wonder: where will they be next month/year/decade?— Lisa Richardson MD (@RicharLisa) June 2, 2021
Reconciliation is a longterm commitment.
Meanwhile, the government continues to drag its feet on reconciliation and reparations. Both the TRC and MMIWG had Calls to Action and Calls for Justice respectively, and Canada has barely moved on either. In 2020, Canada implemented only eight of the TRC’s Calls to Action. Today, June 3, marks two years since the MMIWG inquiry results were shared with Canada and with it comes an action plan that calls for a public education campaign and funding for survivors.
Even this past week, as the news broke, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to encourage flags be put at half mast and say more support is coming, he has yet to announce a specific plan. Trudeau has pledged that the federal government will help preserve gravesites and uncover potentially more unmarked graves, but when the TRC requested $1.5 million to do that in 2009, the then-Harper government denied its request.
Not only is Canada failing residential school survivors, it is actively fighting against some of them. So far, Canada has spent over $3.2 million in a legal dispute against St. Anne’s Indian Residential School survivors seeking fair compensation after documents weren’t presented during the original settlement process.
The fact that Indigenous people have to keep bringing this up, to keep reminding settler-Canadians what happened and continues to happen while providing specific examples of our mistreatment is... exhausting.
As a mixed-Kanyen'keha:ka woman who works in media, these past several days have felt impossible. How can we continue life as normal when 215 of our people, our children, our community members' remains have been found? How can I juggle the needs of a newsroom with my desire to hit pause? How can I ask Indigenous people to write stories when I know they too need time to grieve?
We all need time to grieve. But the days keep coming and time doesn’t standstill. As Canadians "wake up," Indigenous people are called to speak, to answer questions, give advice, and provide comfort.
There’s this notion of the burden of responsibility, that responsibility to advocate for one's basic human rights often falls on those who are marginalized; we carry the weight. It’s time settler-Canadians take some of this burden and make it their responsibility. How many will celebrate Canada Day while simultaneously condemning the mistreatment of Indigenous people? Actions need to line up with words, and this wake-up needs to be permanent.
Responsibility to advocate for one's basic human rights often falls on those who are marginalized; we carry the weight. It’s time settler-Canadians take some of this burden and make it their responsibility.
Start by reading the TRC 94 calls to action, think critically about how you can enact these actions in your own life, and about how changes can be made nationally; try contacting your MP. And if you have the means, follow up by donating to Indigenous organizations that support residential school survivors, and the work promoted by the TRC. From there, listen and witness.
And for my Indigenous kin, I hope you find some time to grieve and take care of yourselves. I took one step towards this when I visited the Ottawa’s memorial. Walking around the centennial flame I noticed these tiny, beautifully beaded blue moccasins. When I came across them, I was brought to tears. I pictured my family, community, and how so many Indigenous children never got the chance to keep walking in their moccasins. I held the tobacco tie I brought tight, took a moment, and placed it next to those blue moccasins.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of Indian Residential Schools. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.