On May 27, the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School sent a sonic-boom of heartbreak that reverberated throughout B.C. and around the world.
For many First Nations people, it was so much more. These children were our relatives. Their families were denied the fundamental right to love, raise and protect them from harm. We cannot help but to think of the lives that these children, and thousands of others like them, could have led without these government-mandated, church-run residential schools.
We think about the Survivors and everything that they have endured. I think about my Mother, Elizabeth Tenning, who attended Kuper Island Residential School. Though we still cannot visit due to the pandemic, I wish I could protect her from the trauma that this has awoken in her. Last night, she told me about classmates who suddenly disappeared.
She and the other children were never told why.
Non-Indigenous people are undoubtedly also saddened by the news. Perhaps it feels like information overload. But feeling the burden of the news is nothing compared to the fact that First Nations people are consulting with forensic experts to see if they can be reconnected with their long-lost, but never forgotten, children. It could take years to bring these young souls home and lay them to rest.
The reality is that every residential school in Canada had grave sites just like the one that was discovered in Kamloops. It is long-past time to bring these children home. In many cases, it will be too late.
So what can we do? We all have a responsibility to uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s ‘Calls to Action’ and the terms of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If you are not familiar with these documents by now, you should be. Look them up and take meaningful action. Demand change.
June 11 will mark 13 years since Canada issued a formal apology to all living and former students of residential schools and their families and communities. But how much has really changed since then? We need to move beyond superficial or performative gestures of support. It should not be such a struggle for Indigenous people to experience safety, health, respect and cultural protections in a country that was built on our lands and at such unimaginable costs.
We need true reconciliation. True healing.
Anne Tenning is District Principal of Indigenous Education in School District 83, North Okanagan-Shuswap, and a member of the Stz’uminus First Nation on Vancouver Island.