By Tony Snow, Indigenous Minister, Chinook Winds Region
It is with sadness that we reflect upon the 215 children, who died as a result of genocide. They died because they were being forced to conform to a society that valued assimilation over diversity. The government and the church’s main focus was ‘to civilize and Christianize.’
As we come to terms with the facts surrounding the discovery of the children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. We reflect upon who knew, who kept the facts hidden, and who took those secrets to their grave to protect the perpetrators of this genocide.
We think about the Residential School Settlement Agreement signed in 2008, and all the governments, inter-denominational parties, and ecumenical partners that all agreed to be bound by the truth-telling of that document: to bring to light of all these atrocities that they might be summarily dealt with.
We think about how through all the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this school, with its astounding number of dead, somehow missed the Residential School Student Death Registrar (Yes, that was its name).
We think about how this atrocity, though remarkable, is not unique in the raw statistics of the Canadian Indian Residential School system.
In Alberta, there were over 800 recorded deaths at Indian Residential Schools. The Red Deer Industrial School alone was one of the most brutal institutions with the highest student mortality rate in the country. Many Stoney children were taken to this institution run by the Methodist Church (today known as The United Church of Canada). My family worked on the repatriation of the bodies on this site and at the former Sharphead reserve near Ponoka.
The uncovering of bodies at all residential schools remains incomplete. The protection of these burial places is often at the sway of developers who disturb these graves unwittingly just as they did in Kamloops. The task of creating a registry for all the children and the protection of their burial sites has been at the discretion of federal government budgets and funding. Sometimes there is federal support, sometimes there is not – depending on who is in charge.
What is disorienting is that any number of surviving former students have signaled the alarm for generations. No one was listening.
Today it’s a little different environment. Today, there is a great chance for accountability. Today some people can hear the Elders, and there are calls for additional searches at other residential schools. This is reasonable, given how much work has been left undone. There is much still to be uncovered.
It is also an important time for truth-telling. Especially for those institutions that are pathologically unable to speak their truths, who need to begin being part of an honest conversation.
With encouragement of institutions like The United Church of Canada, hopefully we can finally begin having that important discussion.
I just want to note that in our traditional culture, the Nakoda people believe that children are gifted to us. A falling star signals the coming of a new spirit, a new soul, a new child coming into this universe. They are given to their parents by the Creator to care for, to nurture and to raise. We say that your children are only loaned to you. They belong to the Creator.
For the many who didn’t come home, who would have been grandparents and elders today, we remember their light and the injustice they felt for being born into a world of such bleakness and pain; a pain their families felt when they didn’t come home. May we take the lessons we learn today and work toward a better future for the coming generations. Amen.