'We've known all along': uncovering the pain of colonization

June 8, 2021, 1730 words, approximately 6 minutes

Trigger Warning: this article contains graphic details about residential schools. Please proceed with caution.

“Did you hear the news?” My dad asked me last week while I was visiting. We were watching CNN on cable TV and drinking coffee with my mom: our typical Saturday routine.

My dad is Métis — a descendent from the original Red River Settlement. My mom is British and Prussian, with strong family roots on Vancouver Island as early European settlers. Together, they told me about the remains of 215 children found on an old residential school property. They know how sensitive and emotionally invested I am in these types of situations, as an anti-racism researcher and equity and inclusion advocate, but also as a Métis on the road to cultural rediscovery.

“Wow, really?” I rhetorically replied, before changing the subject. At the time, I felt no emotion. I was not surprised because it felt like just another day in Canada.
As the days went on and the social media posts on the topic increased, the heaviness crept into my heart. I started noticing people around town wearing orange shirts and grim faces. I saw videos of people attending vigils all across the country. For the following week, I found myself often in a daze, my eyes welling with tears.

Many of the same feelings I had early in the pandemic came flooding back to me: despair, isolation, confusion. My thoughts started fixating on the last few minutes of the children’s lives. I wish I could talk to them now and tell them about how many people miss them.

In an attempt to process these emotions, I hung my son’s moccasin outside my door and lit a cedar bundle that was gifted to me from a Métis friend and healer.

Then, I started searching for answers.

Although this may be the first national media outcry of my lifetime, the truth has always been there.

The uncovering

On May 27, 2021, a statement was released from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in the land now known as Kamloops, finally uncovering the horrifying truth of the missing children from the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The news comes as a shock for many non-Indigenous people, who are learning about the hidden Canadian genocide for the first time.

The truth is, the horrors of residential schools have been known for a long time. This is why I refer to the mass grave in Kamloops as an uncovering rather than a discovery.

Although this may be the first national media outcry of my lifetime, the truth has always been there. There have been many first-hand accounts of abuse from survivors, including reports of sexual abuse, sadistic beatings, and psychological trauma from the cruelty doled out by people masquerading as caretakers. We also know that at the hands of the Church and the colonial government, Indigenous children were severely malnourished and neglected, which inevitably led to death and disease.
Some students died in residential schools due to suicide, disease, or succumbing to the elements during escape attempts, but we do not know the cause of death for every student because most records were destroyed. We do not even know their names. The few records that were preserved tell us, in writing, about the abhorrent and racist treatment of Indigenous children by churches and medical professionals across the country.

According to an analysis published by the Tyee, Dr. Peter Bryce was one of the first people to openly declare and report on the true nature of these so-called “schools.” An exposé written by Bryce in 1933 revealed that the institutions severely lacked food, had inadequate shelter and ventilation, offered little to no healthcare, and rarely had clean drinking water. Bryce wrote that the disarray and unhealthy conditions of the institutions almost seemed deliberate.

Other documents tell individual victim stories, like the preventable death of Douglas Bear, who at 17 years old, became dangerously ill with tuberculosis and the measles while in the care of the File Hills Indian Residential School in 1912. Although his condition was fatal, he was not permitted to see his parents. Archival letters show the blatantly racist attitudes of a doctor and residential school worker, who believed themselves to be superior to Bear and his family because of the colour of their skin. In the letters, the doctor stated that because the family was poor and the school could not afford to send a nurse along, allowing Bear to return home to see his parents would have been “cruel.” Bear’s parents returned to the residential school frequently, begging for them to release their son. Mr. Graham, the Inspector of Indian Agencies to the Chief Inspector, referred to their grief as “pathetic,” writing that he told the parents that “White men understood the disease,” as though this should have been some sort of comfort. Douglas Bear, after pleading to go home, was finally allowed to return to his parents. He died three days later.

Other archival evidence reveals that three young boys died by drowning at the same institution, after workers neglected to stop them from playing on a lake, even though they knew there was newly formed ice.

More RCMP reports and letters from 1939 tell the story of a young disabled boy who took numerous actions to run away and end his life. In regard to the boy’s desire to leave the school, the letters read: “No doubt these children of the wild are even more inclined to want to be out of School [sic] in the wide open spaces than a white child.”

The Muskowekwan Residential School in Saskatchewan closed in 1997. Photo by CBC.

In addition to survivor stories and archival evidence, there have also been other grave sites found on residential school grounds. In 1990, while the Muskowekwan Residential School in Saskatchewan was still operating, construction workers uncovered human remains while replacing a water pipe. Then in 2019, CBC reported that a team of archaeologists and anthropologists conducted a search using ground penetrating radar on the property of the same institution. In this initial search, they identified 10 to 15 areas that could be unmarked graves. Cynthia Dejarlais, a band councillor for the Muskowekwan First Nation, says that 35 unmarked grave sites have been found. Unfortunately, their search was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of these stories are accessible online in a matter of seconds, yet they have gone mostly unknown and unspoken. Now, with the uncovering of the mass grave in Kamloops, people are finally acknowledging the severity of the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Every one of the 215 children found at the Kamloops Residential School has their own untold story. It is up to all Canadians to fiercely challenge the status quo that has allowed for the Canadian genocide to remain unspoken about in this capacity for all these years.

We should ask ourselves, honestly and openly, why there is a national outcry now and not then. Is it because now, after an era of Trumpian politics, civil unrest, and a pandemic, that non-Indigenous people are finally accepting the reality of the abuse and trauma that has been inflicted on Indigenous people for centuries? Perhaps this is a sign that stigmas are lifting and that work to improve equity for all people is starting to have an impact. Perhaps now, Canadians will recognize these atrocities and work together to dismantle systemic racism.

It should be noted, for all non-Indigenous people, that the recent uncovering in Kamloops is a jarring reminder of dominant colonial culture that still exists; only now, after years of stories and oral history begging to be recognized, settlers and the government believe these horrors to be true. Beliefs of the missing and murdered Indigenous children were only considered after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc took action to prove what they had known all along. It was not the government nor the Catholic church who sought to bring justice to the children they stole. It was another Indigenous fight — the burden placed on the victims’ shoulders yet again.

It’s time to stop disregarding the worldviews of Indigenous people because they don’t fit with colonial ideals.

What can be done?

My inbox and newsfeed have been flooded with the same questions I had after George Floyd was killed by police, and the protests that followed.

“How can I help?”

“What can I do?”

I think many people are still processing the reality of the dark and dangerous world we live in; the one where Indigenous children continue to be taken away from their families, where First Nations and Inuit communities do not have clean water, where racially motivated violence continues, where systemic racism impacts economic opportunity, where poor people can’t afford to live or eat or get an education.

The most revolutionary acts can be small: talk to people about colonization.

Understand that privilege is a real phenomenon; ask yourself how you can build someone up who does not have the same privilege as you. Fight for free education. Vote with purpose. Vote with your dollars.

I want everyone to know that colonialism still has its tentacles in every facet of society. It is the dominant culture in Canada, based on laws and religious morality brought over from Europe pre-colonization. This eurocentric culture is comfortable and safe for many people, but it is also dangerous and oppressive to many, because it undermines the identity and ways of being of the first peoples who have lived here since time immemorial.

Just as Ryan McMahon said in a 2017 CBC article, “Let’s admit, the word itself, colonialism, makes you tune out. It induces an eye roll of epic proportions.”

This may be true, but we must continue to recognize and learn what colonialism is. We can look to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) for strategies and actionable ways to decolonize. If the remains of 215 missing children have truly made an impact — and if people’s tears are genuine — then Canadians must do the work to bring justice for their families.

Canadians must work together to ensure that these types of atrocities never happen again.

I’ve started a collection of articles, videos, podcasts, books, and scientific journals to help educate on this topic broadly, but a full understanding takes more than accruing knowledge; it takes sharing that knowledge, implementing actions daily, and ultimately, changing the way we function as a society. You can also read about a few simple ways to decolonize your life in the statement I wrote here.

Let’s continue on this path of justice. The road will be difficult and it will be painful, but our children deserve a better world.

To read & watch:


Erin is a Métis anti-racism researcher, climate communicator, and equity and inclusion advocate from the Cowichan Valley. Share your stories and thoughts with Erin: erin@cis-iwc.org.

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