Sunday, June 13, 2021

Red River Roots: Burial Sites on Residential Schools

Trigger warning: I will be discussing recent events regarding the Indian Residential School in Kamloops. 

In these Red River Roots posts, I’ve been figuring out who I am. Among other things, I am Métis. Feel free to click back to earlier posts if you are curious. My journey into understanding my Indigenous self, and how it sits beside my Settler self, has changed me fundamentally. I have a fresh and difficult view of who I am. This month it smacked me in the face and hurt my soul. Recently, 215 hidden corpses were revealed at the Indian Residential School in Kamloops. In my lifetime I have known family members who attended, or taught at, Residential Schools. They are now deceased.

I’ll be getting pretty wonky here. I will let fly with opinions, ideas and politics. Before I get into that, I pause. 

A moment, please, for children who didn’t get a chance.

So many abused children. So much erased family. So much pain, fear, and degradation. I thought I knew about Indian Residential Schools in Canada. No, I did not. I have so much to learn. Rest in power, little cousins.


The words we choose are powerful. They can undermine honesty, or reveal truth. After consideration, I offer these words… 

We are standing on the bodies of murdered children.

As I learn more accurate history, it becomes clear to me that the Canadian state was built, systematically, through the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. I’m sorry if you don’t like the word “genocide”, but it is the one we need. The Residential School system was part of a multi-pronged plan, calculated to destroy and assimilate Indigenous Peoples. It didn’t just happen randomly. It was not merely “a dark chapter we need to move on from”. It was pre-meditated. By the time the system had been running a few decades, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce (Canada’s Chief Medical Officer) revealed how horrific and damaging these institutions were. The Government silenced Bryce, and doubled down on the project.

As Settlers in Canada, our systems, wealth, and economy rely on the exploitation of lands and resources taken from Indigenous Peoples. It’s called colonization. All of this is accomplished, at the core, by the Government of Canada. It began before Confederation, and it continues to this day. Through creating and perpetuating the Residential Schools, it was the Government of Canada that abducted, abused, and killed Indigenous children to accomplish their goals.

The Government will point fingers at the Church and the RCMP to deflect from its own accountability. The Church is mightily responsible, but they delivered the program under the direction of Canada. The RCMP stole the children from their families and forced them into these institutions. They are culpable, but they were fulfilling their function as designed by the Government.

Those who know me will be familiar with my views on organized religion and cops. Nothing is churchier than Catholicism. Nothing is more coppish than the RCMP. I would love to see both those organizations dismantled and removed from the face of the earth. We certainly need to demand justice from churches and police for their part in Residential Schools. But… to focus primarily on them deflects responsibility from the real perpetrator. 

Settler friends and family, you might want to sit down for this. This real perpetrator? The “man behind the curtain”? That’s the Canadian Government. It serves us, it is elected by us and, in the end, the Canadian Government is us. 

All Settlers in Canada (meaning anyone who is not Indigenous) benefit mightily from the crimes committed against the Indigenous inhabitants of where we live. The theft of land and resources? The murder and assimilation of Native Peoples? These are tools that the British colonizers used to build the Nation of Canada that we live in today. It is a nation where Indigenous folks are rendered invisible, and where they must fight fiercely for any justice, or any scrap of what they are legally entitled to. 

My house is on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh Nations. It is worth a lot of money, and when I sell it I will reap the benefits of holding ownership of stolen lands. I walk past Hastings and Main, in downtown Vancouver, and watch  the distressing poverty and illness that overwhelms the urban Indigenous Peoples who live there. These people, and the damage they carry, are the result of the Residential School system. Many are members of the the Coast Salish Nations, upon who’s stolen land I own my home. I think about these things and worry. Settlers are perpetrators.

I know that an average Settler in today’s world likely didn’t engage in genocide. I did not personally and actively steal any land. That’s not the point. Past crimes may not be my fault. But it is absolutely my responsibility to do my best to reconcile. That means we, as Settlers, need to understand that we have reaped privilege from the horrors of the Residential Schools. If we want a decent world for all our kids to inhabit in the future, we need to work alongside our Indigenous partners to reconcile and create a decolonized Canada.

Things will not change unless we demand it. Even then, it will be difficult and slow. The British Colonial Government is designed to protect itself from accountability. While our current Prime Minister mouths mournful sentiments regarding the murdered children, he continues to litigate against them, using the taxpayer’s dime.

It is the obligation of today’s Settlers to do something that helps. I have some ideas. Here they are framed under two categories. I have a “to do” list, and also a “to don’t” list.

First… Some things I wIll not do…

I will not demand that the Settler justice system is immediately imposed on crime scenes like the Kamloops School. Remember that the RCMP and the Canadian Government are responsible for this. How can the criminals catch and punish the criminals? How can we imagine that Indigenous groups would trust them to come into their territory to supposedly “fix” this crime? Any approach to such a search and any application of justice must be led by Indigenous Peoples. Some leaders and nations are coming forward, demanding searches and accountability. This is appropriate. It should be their decision and their method.

I will not use misleading language. I won’t soften this. I won’t say “lost children” (as I have heard in the media lately). That’s vague and evasive. They are not lost. Thanks to the efforts of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, they have been found. I’ll say “murdered children”… or, more accurately, “abused and hidden murdered children”. Call it what it is. Feel the ugliness of it. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, check yourself.

I will not say “dark chapter of Canadian history”. This is not some dusty era from a long bygone age. This is current events, living history, today’s news in Canada. These schools were still in operation when I was a kid. First Nations people around my age may have attended Residential Schools. If they didn’t, their moms, dads, and grandparents certainly did. The generational trauma these institutions committed against First Nations is an open wound, throbbing in full effect today. It is devastating. Rather than “dark chapter of Canadian history”, I think I’ll say “ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples”. That feels more honest.

Also… Here are some things I will do…

I will learn, read, and listen.

To begin, it’s important to know, when it comes to the Indian Residential School system in Canada, a lot of work has already been done. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up in 2015. You may remember it? It concerned itself precisely with the issue we’re looking at here. It offered 94 Calls to Action. I suggest you read them. They are the guide towards healing and reconciliation. So far,  only 10 have been (in some way) enacted. We need all those Calls to Action brought into powerful and lasting effect. This is the starting point. This is what we must demand of our politicians.

Last year I took this course called Indigenous Canada. It was created by First Nations faculty at the University of Alberta. It is helpful and free. I went from clueless to bare-bones knowledgable. If you are a middle-aged Settler like me, you were raised in a colonized school system, in a Settler culture rife with racism and stereotypes. Unless you undertake some kind of education like this, your chance of having clear and useful information about these issues is low. It’s time to become knowledgable. We may not agree on all the solutions, but we should at least be able to see the problems together.

I will listen to Indigenous voices. When learning about hidden children murdered at Residential Schools, I prefer Murray Sinclair. He’s a former Senator, and First Nations Lawyer and Judge. He was the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here he is in a video clip.


I watch APTN News. They cover the news from an Indigenous perspective. Settler voices and ideas will always dominate the media mix and they can be skewed in damaging ways. APTN brushes that aside in a refreshing manner.

I will engage with elected officials.

I dislike politicians. With few exceptions they are dishonest, self-interested, partisan puppets, but they are all we’ve got. Sometimes it is good write to them, and this is such a time. There is an election coming, and this should be issue number one, in my opinion. They will be counting the letters, for sure.  Let them know what you think and maybe they will do something. Make them worry about losing their job. Make them worry about being human beings. I suggest you make it short and fire it off as an email. That won’t take long. Here is what I sent to my MP, MLA, and the Prime Minister. Feel free to crib from it as you wish.

“Dear Politician,

In view of the recent uncovering of 215 hidden, murdered First Nations children on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, I urge you to demand the quick and effective implementation of all 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The ongoing colonization that the Canadian State visits upon Indigenous Peoples must be confronted and undone. This is an essential step. As a Settler Canadian, I share in the shame of this, and we all share in the responsibility for reconciliation.


Finally, I sent some money.

I am an Indigenous person, but I’m also a Settler with plenty of White Privilege. That translates to me being “wealthy”, even though many would say we’re just getting by. Bullshit. We’ll be fine. In response to the uncovering of murdered children in Kamloops, I donated to the following groups.

I sent money to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. They financed the search that led to the uncovering of 215 children on their territory. I imagine that costs money. I want to help them fund that.

I sent money to the Indian Residential School Survivor Society. The IRSSS helps the survivors that suffer among us to this day. 

I donated to UNYA, the Urban Native Youth Association. They help and support Indigenous kids here in Vancouver. I am all about that.

Which brings us back to children, which is why I wrote this. It wasn’t easy, but it is important. Since I’ve begun writing, more hidden, murdered children are being revealed in different locations in Canada. This is only going to get worse. I try to find ways to help.

Rest, little ones. We see you.


Unknown said...

I appreciate deeply all the writing and thinking you do on this since knowing about your Metis roots. Metis have always been a bridge, but not always in the best of directions. I know many Metis who work hard to do their work of reconciling as you are doing, and it is soul reviving to read about it.

I of course have my own work to do, and my family has work to do right alongside of yours.

You probably know this already, but in case you don't, the other document that has been so carefully written is the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP). There were 440 recommendations, and at the presentation of the report the writers begged that all of the hard labour not be put on a shelf to collect dust. As such, I like to share it out to ensure that, despite the Government of Canada's best efforts to forget about it, the work is not in vain. =D

Sorry I can't seem to switch from my DPAC account, lol. It's karen tsang writing. I'm at DPAC working my patch, looking for accountability from one of the many institutions that harm Indigenous and Black students amongst others, under the guidance of those who would benefit from better. In solidarity.

KShaw said...

Powerfully and thoughtfully said Tim. Genocide is the correct term. I agree “we” are the culprits. And we are the healing path forward.

Rhonda van Tent said...

Wow, very well spoken. Straight to the heart and brutally honest and true. I have long been interested in the Louis Riel story. I remember my long gone Grandpa saying so.ething about his father having some connection with Riel. I have never been able to find a connection, but have always been fascinated by hus story. Fast forward to my second marriage, to a Metis, a direct descendent of Gabriel Dumont. I learned all about Dumont after I married, but learned of the family connection much later. In Saskatchewan my husband's family would never admit to being Metis, for fear of their children being taken. The Canadian Government, the Catholic Church and RCMP all have amends to make. I agree with the lady who wants to see the Pope. Here. Walking those grounds.
I have been reading The NorthWest is our Mother. The story of Canada becoming a country. On the backs of the First Nations, English Metis and French Metis. A great read.
You've wakened me to ways as a privileged white woman can make small amends. Thank you
Rhonda van Tent