Oleksandr (Sasha) Kondrashov
Last week my thoughts, prayers, emotions and actions were centered on the new knowledge the world learnt about a mass grave in Kamloops Indian Residential School. On May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc issued press-release to inform the world that a ground penetrating radar specialist located the remains of 215 children. The children were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In 2008, Kamloops This Week reported allegations that the remains of children were buried in the land around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. At that time, the Catholic Church stated it did not know about such claims. Catholic church-operated Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1890 until 1969 under the Federal Government’s authority took over the operation from 1969 until its closure in 1978. Enrolment in the School peaked in the early 1950s at 500.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir. “Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
Reading the press release and all the follow-up articles and commentary is horrifying, heartbreaking, shocking and triggering. The history of Residential Schools in Canada has many “secrets” that are becoming more visible and show the inhumane treatment of Indigenous children who were forced to attend them based on Canadian assimilation policy. The graves have been found: children died unnamed. Secrets that some people in power wanted to stay buried can no longer be hidden.
Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Social Work, in their statement, reminds us that “although the residential school was closed 43 years ago, the recent uncovering of this mass grave reasserts Canada’s continued colonial violence and anti-Indigenous racism. Similar stories swirl around the Mohawk Institute residential school along the Grand River of the Haldimand Tract lands where Wilfrid Laurier University and the Faculty of Social Work are located. We are reminded of the words of Anishinaabe Elder Mary Deleary in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report: “The land is made up of the dust of our ancestors’ bones. And so, to reconcile with this land and everything that has happened, there is much work to be done.”
Oral history and “secrets” in communities worldwide are common. It is horrifying both for those who witness the experience and those who are listening to that experience. Ukrainians know about the secrets of Holodomor when the USSR government killed millions of farmers and forced people to die by starvation. Non-white people of South Africa survived Apartheid, the Jewish community – Holocaust. Indigenous People in Canada survived Residential Schools. Many vulnerable communities worldwide have “secrets” that their members have been abused, tortured, killed, and buried in unnamed graves. Those who hold power hope that no one will learn about “secrets,” and they do what they can to keep people silent and pretend that all is good.
Fortunately, the truth will prevail. Unfortunately, it takes time to uncover the truth from a vulnerable person’s perspective, and even more time is needed to seek reconciliation. The People’s truth should come first. The truth is that those who are in power want to silence everyone who does not think, feel, act, and pray the way they want others to think, feel, act and pray. Indigenous People and vulnerable communities are in danger worldwide as they resist those who wish to destroy them. Their voices are loud. Indigenous People are keepers of the land. However, once the keepers are gone, the land will also be destroyed. The mass killings, wars, famine, pandemics are some examples of mass destructions of Indigenous People. Those in power who do not share Indigenous People’s values are self-centred, greedy for power and control and indifferent to others needs instead of valuing human diversity, dignity, community, and relationality.
The tragedy of missing children, unmarked graves, and residential school cemeteries was documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. Its final report, Honouring the Truth, included several calls to action, including the updating of records on the deaths of Indigenous children, completion of a national student death register, and creation of an online registry of residential school cemeteries with maps showing the location of deceased residential school children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that approximately 4100 children died in the residential schools in Canada. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based in Winnipeg, has created a registry of children who died in the schools. Indigenous People know, it is not complete. Two hundred fifteen unnamed children will be added to the registry now and more in the future. The world is watching. It is the truth! Mary Culbertson, a Treaty Commissioner and lawyer from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Treaty 4 territory states: “We can never stop speaking and exposing the truth of these horrifying facts, of the genocide. For the children who never came home, for our children yet to come that this may never happen again and that we never forget the truth comes before reconciliation”.
At least 150,000 children attended such schools in what a historic 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as a “cultural genocide” targeting Canada’s Indigenous people The Guardian reports that “In documents submitted to the commission, former Kamloops attendees described the harsh conditions of the school, which did not receive enough per-capita funding from the government to pay for its costs. George Manuel, who attended in the 1920s, said: “Every Indian student smelled of hunger.” The school was described as being cold in winter and unsanitary. The same documents mention that students were exposed to outbreaks of measles, tuberculosis, influenza and other contagious diseases, and many died. In a 1935 report on a death from measles at the school, an agent noted that “the sleeping accommodation for 285 pupils in the school consists of five dormitories, which are crowded. During an epidemic it is impossible to properly isolate the patients and contacts.”
It is critical to listen to Indigenous People for guidance and a call to action. It is time for the world to listen to Indigenous People and commit to hearing the truth. How can future governments, churches and other power structures ensure that these acts will never happen again? Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and the Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, issued the following statement: “The mistreatment of Indigenous children is a tragic and shameful part of Canada’s history. Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that removed Indigenous children from their communities. Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families. The families were often provided with little to no information on the circumstances of their loved one’s death nor the location of their burial. Children in residential schools were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. The loss of children who attended residential schools is unthinkable and Canada remains resolved to supporting families, Survivors and communities and to memorializing those lost innocent souls”.
In the Letter to the community regarding the Kamloops residential school burial site Dr. Florence Glanfield, Vice-Provost in Indigenous Programming and Research states: “Universities across Canada are working to address the historical and contemporary legacy of the residential school system and colonial harms more generally, by taking up the Calls to Action issued by the TRC. Universities must be committed to mobilizing the truth about the Indian Residential Schools realities. As the TRC directs us, “Without truth, there can be no reconciliation.” Dr. Florence Glanfield offers some suggestions on what can individuals and communities do to remember these children and other lives lost in the residential school system: “Remember these children and their families in all of the ways that you, as an individual, remember —perhaps it is through prayer, perhaps by lighting a candle, perhaps by smudging. Honour these and the other lives lost in the residential school system in a way that makes sense to you. If you have not familiarized yourself with it already, then I strongly encourage you to read the TRC report and Calls to Action and make them a priority as you engage in your teaching, learning and research endeavors. The recent news also means deeply considering what it means when you, and the institutions to which you belong, acknowledge territory. The acknowledgement of territory carries a responsibility—a responsibility, for example, of remembering the lives that these children, and so many others, lost. These small steps are part of the crucial journey that Canadians are all on towards improving understanding of First Nations, Métis and Inuit historical, and lived, experiences”.
Garry Gottfriedson, a Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor whose poems and books explore Indigenous identity, provides counsel and curriculum advice to Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops on Secwepemc Nation protocols and cultural practices. Garry shares: “Our community decided to keep it as a constant reminder that we don’t want our children to go through this,”. “We will teach our children, always be aware. Never forget. Never forget that this happened.”
Nikoly Znovu in Ukrainian is a call to honour the past, to listen to people’s voices, not to repeat the horrors of war, genocide, torture, violence and abuse on all levels. Can the Canadian Government and Catholic Church in 2021 commit to listening to the truth experienced by Indigenous People? Can People in Canada honour the history of Indigenous People? Time will tell. Based on our social location, each of us needs to commit to learn and unlearn, acknowledge the truth, and seek reconciliation, so children will never again experience the horrors of the residential schools. Vichnaya Pamjat’ Eternal Memory to 215 Indigenous Child Heroes from Kamloops Indian Residential School.
I want to share a song and a poem that keeps me empowered. Those lyrics and words help me educate myself and others using the seven sacred teachings and values common among Indigenous People in Canada and worldwide, such as respect, honesty, truth, courage, wisdom, humility and love. The song is by students from the Sk’elep School of Excellence: N’we Jinan Artists – “WE WON’T FORGET YOU” // Sk’elep School of Excellence, B.C. – YouTube The poem is by Abigail Echo Hawk. Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/IndigeCultures/status/1399435515645079561/photo/1
When they buried the children; what they didn’t know;
They were lovingly embraced by the land.
Held and cradled in a mother’s heart;
The trees wept for them, with the wind
They sang mourning songs their mother’s didn’t know to sing.
Bending branches to touch the earth around them;
The tears falling like rain.
Mother Earth held them until they could be found;
Now our voices sing the mourning songs
With the trees, the wind.
Light sacred fire; ensure they are never forgotten as we sing JUSTICE.
Here are some resources shared with the TRU community. Let me know if there are others that I can add to the list:
Resources available to students at TRU:
- Indigenous Student Development (Cplul’kw’ten): reach out to an Indigenous Learning Strategist at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Counselling Services: meet a counsellor, at email@example.com or call 250-828-5023
- Provincial Counselling Services: Here2Talk.ca, or call 1-877-857-3397, available 24/7
Resources available to faculty and staff at TRU:
- Counsellor support through LifeWorks EFAP: call 1-877-207-8833
- Email Campus Wellness Advisor Joy Demsey or call 250-828-5344 if you need further support
Other services include:
- First Nations Health Authority – Mental Health Benefit
- Indian Residential School Survivors Society – 24 Hour Crisis Line
- KUU-US Crisis Line Society – 24 Hour Crisis Line (British Columbia)
- Métis Nation BC – 24 Hour Crisis Line 1-833-METIS-BC (1-833-638-4722)
Virtual Healing Circle
Thursday, June 3, 10:30 a.m. – noon
Join TRU’s virtual healing circle on Zoom.
Emotional, cultural and professional support services are also available to Survivors and their families through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program. Services can be accessed on an individual, family or group basis.
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador: 1-866-414-8111
British Columbia: 1-877-477-0775
Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut: 1-800-464-8106
Resources to learn more about residential schools (please share yours as I will keep updating the list)
- Project of Heart Illuminating the hidden history of Indian Residential Schools in BC
- Jack, A. S., & Jack, A. S. (2001). Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Penticton, B.C.: Secwepemc Cultural Education Society / Theytus Books Ltd.
- Candice Bee shared multiple resources in their Facebook post.