This week, the news of the remains of 215 children found buried at a former B.C. residential school just makes me sad and angry. Anger has finally surpassed my sadness.
I was absolutely heartbroken, confused, and utterly lost when I first heard of these stories. 20 years ago. I was taught about the brutal truth of residential schools by a passionate teacher in high school, and I was always thankful for his honesty. The more I learned, the sadder I felt. I wept inside for the children and their families back then, and I’ve been continually moved to “do my part” ever since. I’ve been offering my support to indigenous communities through music and emotional wellness education since 2015. I even designed a program I called “Song Healing” to support others in learning about music, songwriting, and their relationship to emotional processing. But something different is happening for me these days, and I feel it’s worth sharing…. Because something different needs to happen out in the world… and it starts within us. It always does.
I don’t like anger, I’ll admit it. For nearly every conflict in my life… with a loved one, colleague, stranger, or child,… I can find a more positive outcome if I bypass my anger and get straight to the softer stuff. I tend to stay level-headed and heart-centred, with my voice calm and compassionate. I try my best to use words with great care and skill, to naturally disarm myself, and hopefully help the person with whom there’s a conflict also disarm themselves. In my experience, effective communication works best when both people feel safe to access their vulnerabilities. And so, one of my passions in life is to teach people these skills.
Having said all that, the fact I haven’t NEEDED to access my anger more often… really shows my privilege. There IS a very important place for anger. And I am long past due understanding and embracing it.
The deaths of these children no longer illicit my sadness… they illicit my anger.
These tools and techniques for healthy communication that I’ve listed above - they are meant to support human connection. They work with, and for, human beings.
They don’t work with “systems”. Systems are soul-less entities.
These residential schools were made manifest out of the “system”… and I estimate, a relatively small group of powerful people with the capabilities to design them… and set them in motion. And the rest of the population to simply… go along with it. Following orders. And every day human beings like you and me, provided the building blocks. Everyday folks, just doing their jobs, working for the “system”, doing what they were told…. helped to create the residential schools. Someone had to build the school. Someone had to “select” and “deliver” the children - my understanding is that RCMP were most often put to this task. Following orders. We now understand this to be kidnapping, as most if not all children were taken against the will of their families. The last residential school closed in 1996. If this were you, today… would you have the courage to risk losing your job to stand up against an order you knew was wrong?
(Side note: Noticing where you’re currently interacting with the “system” on a day to day basis is important. Noticing when you’re in a job, answering to the “system” is important. Noticing when you’re dealing with another human being who is answering to the “system”, is also important. Just start by noticing, without judgement. We all have to feed ourselves and our families. Building awareness is the point of this exercise.)
History has shown that these residential schools were created by the false ideology that “civilized society” needed to break the indigenous child in order to assimilate them into the “system” that those in power were trying to impose. The “system” of which we are all now a part.
The Goal of Residential School:
“We instil in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.” - Bishop Vital Grandin, 1875
Many Winnipeggers, myself included, regularly travel a highway named “Bishop Grandin”, with very little knowledge of the man, the subject of this bestowed honour. The symbolism of this is not lost on me. The deep-seated connection of these atrocities are now built into the fabric of our every day life.
But here’s where I’ve gotten stuck. Especially as someone raised in a church-going family… who has seen such love, kindness, generosity, and beauty of spirit exist within every religion I've encountered and seen up close, including those connected most directly with the residential schools in our country.
I perceive residential schools, by design, to have attracted the types of personalities that fed off power and control… they fed off hatred for that which they did not understand… in this case, the Indigenous. They were brainwashed into hating another human being based on lies and propaganda… they were completely closed off from their hearts in some cases and loyal to a “system” they believed was the only way. Some committed horrendous crimes against these innocent children and their families, and were assisted in covering it up by a “system” that looked the other way. They were inherently encouraged by the “system” that everyone else had a part in allowing to exist. And they were not dressed like monsters… they were dressed like holy people. And they looked like you and me.
Contemplating this could make a regular, kind hearted human being shut right off, fall asleep, and do something else with their day. They might resist thinking about it past this point. It’s understandably scary!!! It takes a great deal of courage to face these invariable truths. Stay with me. For the children whose lives were lost… please stay with me. They deserve it from us.
We all have a shadow. We all have parts of us we’d rather not admit to others. We can all experience greed or a need for power… we can all hide behind ignorance and pretend we don’t see reality… we can all experience hatred for that which we don’t understand. To own these parts of ourselves… to accept them and process them in a safe way… is to do our individual part to prevent what has happened here, from ever happening again. It’s not the whole answer… but it’s one place to start, from within ourselves.
Surely… there were at least a few staff members in these schools… who were deeply uncomfortable with the level of abuse, intolerance, and aggression shown towards these children they were witnessing. Kitchen workers, or certain nuns and priests noticing there was one less child in the line today. Saying… "I didn’t sign up for this"… "what the hell is going on here"…. "I have to do something"… "these are children"… "something’s wrong".
From what is our Canadian history… THIS PERSON… is the person I invoke from my ancestry.
As a non-indigenous woman, and as a descendent to settlers on this land. I have a responsibility. I choose to connect to the bloodline of my ancestors, who knew that something was wrong. They knew back then… as I know now.
This is what waking up looks like for me. And I’m fumbling in the dark. I’m scared, alone, and I don’t know what I’m doing. But in my dreams, I am picking up one child in my arms, and I am running back towards their family…
There is so much more to say… so much more to do… and we all play a part. But I’ll leave it here for now, and hopefully invite a dialogue that many of us are so desperately needing. We have to start somewhere.
With such a tender topic, my final thoughts rest with the families and communities still grieving the loss of their precious children, still suffering without proper burials… still suffering without acknowledgement, justice, or action…. Still suffering….. I am so very sorry for everything you have lost and continue to endure.