This post discusses recent announcements regarding Canada’s Residential Schools which may bring up difficult memories or feelings for some readers. Support is available at the 24-Hour Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.
I led a discussion and small memorial in my Grade 9 Religious Studies class in the days after the announcement from Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation. One of my students commented: “I had learned about Residential Schools before, but I didn’t really understand it. Now as I am learning more about them it just gets harder.” It does. It just gets harder.
Like many within Canada, recent announcements from First Nations communities about ground radar confirmation of mass and unmarked graves on the grounds of former Residential Schools have left me in a state of grief. I am mourning and questioning many things. As a white descendent of colonial settlers, and as a Christian, facing the harsher facts about the ruthless violence of Residential Schools – implemented to benefit settlers like my ancestors and carried out in the name of my God – has been both difficult and necessary.
I weep when I think of families torn asunder, of parents’ heartbreak, and children’s fear. I grieve for these precious lives that were deemed so disposable, and lament that thousands upon thousands of children were told that God didn’t (and couldn’t) love them as they had been made. I grieve my own ignorance. What a privilege it is to be shocked and surprised by these announcements. Reports of the high mortality rate of these institutions were circulating over 100 years ago. Oral histories from survivors, painstakingly shared and documented throughout the many years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declared to us the losses, told us about dormmates who did not return to their beds, about empty seats in classrooms.
We, as a nation, didn’t listen.
These announcements are not new revelations. They are part of a story that we have been willing and able to ignore. And even as we begin to listen, we are still trying to have the story told on our own terms. Headlines will declare that remains have been “discovered” as though no one knew they were there at all. Repeating the hubristic trope of “discovery” negates Indigenous stories and knowledge.
We didn’t discover a damn thing.
In a sad echo of the Apostle Thomas, we were unconvinced by oral histories and other eye-witness accounts. We wouldn’t believe until The Facts™ were presented coldly, numerically, scientifically. Until these communities brought out the raw evidence of their wounds we would not attend to the reality others declared. We have heard but not understood; seen and not perceived.
At least Thomas was asking to see wounds he didn’t inflict.
But we are not only Thomases, waiting until the facts are displayed to us in terms that we will accept. We have also been Sauls, persecuting the righteous and thinking it justice. And we have been Pharaohs, casting aspersions on the moral character of an oppressed group as a way to numb the cutting truth of their words and pleas, and forced them to make bricks without straw. The mythology of Egypt, where its greatness reflected its superiority and where its gods represented their power and their justice within the person of Pharoah, did not leave room for Pharoah to be questioned. It did not allow the story of oppression to be told and believed.
The mythology of Canada, similarly, has not left room for certain stories to be told and believed. There isn’t space amongst our national myths – stories of being a kind nation, a polite nation, a welcoming, educated, inclusive nation that helps with peacekeeping around the world and opens our doors to refugees – to hear the cries of the oppressed in our own land. We have distrusted the voices that we ourselves pushed to the margins, have told ourselves that these people are lazy, that they are exaggerating and kicking up too much of a fuss, that they need to move on and forget the past. Because to truly attend to the stories they are telling would break us.
But we are already broken. The sooner we work to accept the non-mythological version of ourselves, one that understands that we cannot accurately tell our story while we ignore that we are a settler-colonial nation, the better.
I hope that we will stop letting the inertia of ignorance shape how we tell our national story.
As more ground radar searches lead to further announcements, my prayer is that we will finally hear and understand. I hope that we will stop using the word discover, stop letting arguments about the meaning of the word genocide distract us from the pain our state has caused, and stop referring to something imbedded in the fabric of our nation state as a chapter. It isn’t a chapter. It’s the plot.
Lord, may our grief give us ears to hear.
This is a time to listen to the stories we have ignored. Here are some links to resources if you’re looking for a place to start: