By Pauline Kerr
When news first emerged that bodies of at least 215 First Nations children had been found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, we were outraged. We reeled in horror.
The news was shocking, but at the same time, not surprising. Everyone knew children had died at that school and were buried there, sometimes without families being notified. Sometimes records were inaccurate and incomplete. Sometimes records were falsified. Sometimes the truth of what happened to children was deliberately hidden. Sometimes was apparently an understatement.
The people investigating the site with state-of-the-art technology expected to find bodies, about 50 of them. When the ground-penetrating radar indicated more than four times that number, the shock waves travelled to all parts of Canada and beyond.
Shock turned to grief as impromptu memorials began to appear – pairs of children’s shoes, some accompanied by teddy bears and flowers. Those shoes – little pink running shoes, small blue boots, rainbow-coloured sandals that would fit in the palm of an adult’s hand, pretty back-to-school shoes with sparkles, soft deerskin moccasins, well-worn sports shoes with brightly-coloured laces – drove home the reality of the tragedy as no flag flown at half-mast could.
When we viewed these memorials, we could envision our children and grandchildren, younger siblings, nieces and nephews, the neighbour’s children, wearing those shoes, dancing in them, playing and running. And we understood. At long last, we understood, whatever our racial heritage. The children who died or simply disappeared, all had families who loved them, treasured them, and still mourn their loss.
Removing a community’s children and denying them their heritage was horrifying enough; it also denied the entire community its future, an unspeakable horror.
Unspeakable has been the operative word for too many years. There have been calls by survivors of residential schools to investigate the missing children for a long time, but most Canadians never imagined the true extent of the tragedy. There was a general awareness of the abuse that went on at the schools, where undernourished children were beaten for speaking their own language, where living conditions were so poor that diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza burned through the dormitories, killing many. Children were molested, traumatized. Survivors carry life-long scars.
The survivors knew a lot more children died and were buried at those schools than the official records indicated. They knew about the unmarked graves, the names that were never recorded, the fires, the suicides. Survivors spoke about all of it, but their stories fell on deaf ears. No one listened.
We are listening now. Canadians of every racial background want the truth to be known – the entire truth, no matter how disturbing. We want the survivors to be heard – all of them – heard and believed. Investigate with ground-penetrating radar? Of course. Use every scientific means possible to identify the bodies and return the remains to their communities? Definitely. Dispense with the sanitized version of history taught in our schools and replace it with the truth? Absolutely vital.
The residential school tragedy was not something that happened so far back in history that memories no longer count. The school in Kamloops closed in 1969. The last residential school closed in 1996. Memories are fresh and raw, and very clear. For our country’s First Nations to suffer such horrors is bad enough, but to go unheard when they spoke, and continue to speak about what happened is so much worse.
Other investigations will be conducted and more bodies will be found – a lot more bodies, of that there can be no doubt. The school in Kamloops was one of more than 100 residential schools.
The survivors know what needs to be done. Those grave sites must be protected until they can be properly investigated. Those who died must be properly mourned. The entire truth must come out.
There are stories to be told and they will be listened to, at long last.
History will be corrected. We were never taught what happened at residential schools, but our children will be.