The ‘uncovery’ of 215 unmarked graves

What We Need To Do Now

Written by: Bindu Cudjoe, Board Chair, Oakville Community Foundation

The ‘uncovery’ of the unmarked graves of 215 children in Kamloops made national news this weekend, as it should have.  I am heartbroken, like so many of you, but not surprised.  

While the terrible residential school system was not a chapter of Canadian history that I was taught in school, I started on my personal learning about the residential school system a few years back, catalyzed by what my children were learning at school and coinciding with trip to Vancouver Island where we visited Alert Bay (on the northern tip of the Island) and the museum built on the site of the residential school on that island. There, we were able to learn from some Indigenous knowledge keepers that the residential school system was a government-created and sanctioned system to extinguish Indigenous people and culture.

While I am not Indigenous, I try to perform acts of allyship, because it isn’t just enough to say I am an ally, it’s about: what will I do?

Given what we all learned over the weekend, I don’t think anyone can credibly say “I don’t know about the residential schools”, or “what happened is not relevant to me.”

  • This is a tragedy on a national scale. It happened across Canada. Sadly, the bodies of the 215 children found in Kamloops will not be the last ones to be recovered in this country.
  • This is not a tragedy of the past. The last residential schools closed in 1996 and the real experiences of the victims and their descendants are not just ancient history – it is current and present and impacting Indigenous people right now, here. 
  • This was a terrible, open secret for many Indigenous people and communities – but it is no longer a secret. Unmarked burial sites, mass graves and missing children (and women) are things that Indigenous communities have known about for generations, lingering reminders of injustice that continues today.  Why do some lives matter more than others?
  • This tragedy was documented by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was struck in 2007, and delivered its report in 2015 with 94 ‘calls to action’. There were six specific ‘calls to action’ (#71-76) on residential schools. You can learn more here.

To me, this uncovering has brought up many of the same feelings – heartbreak, shock, horror, guilt/complicit-ness – that I felt last spring as George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter and the issues they were advocating for rose to the forefront. We went through it again with the events in Colorado where 7 people lost their lives, giving rise to the #StopAsianHate movement. Here we are again, with an event capturing national and international perspective, about the history of injustice against the Indigenous community.

So now that we acknowledge that we know, what can we do? How can we ready ourselves for the work and change that a national reckoning about the systemic and structural racism and discrimination that members of the Black and Indigenous communities and racialized persons experience?

  • We need to mourn the loss of these lives and acknowledge the harm done to the victims, descendants and communities. Recognizing the inter-generational and ongoing trauma caused by the residential school system must become part of the national conversation.
  • We need to learn about the residential schools so we can begin true reconciliation as allies. There are some good resources for children – also good for adults learning. You can find out if you lived near a residential school.
  • We need to commit to address the lasting impacts of a history symbolized by the lives of 215 children. What will we require to be done to the individuals who ran and worked in the residential schools, who committed the abuse? What will we require to be done to pursue justice against the institutions that created the systems and allowed them to continue? We saw with Black Lives Matter that when we raise our collective voices we can be powerful.

It is daunting. It might not feel like your responsibility. You might think “what can I do?”.

But, each of us can do something. It is your responsibility to try to make the world better. Together, our actions will have impact. Standing with people is an important act of allyship. 

First and foremost – believe it. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t explain it. The residential schools are a fact. The purpose, the abuse, the brutality, the deaths – these are facts.

Second, don’t spend your emotional energy trying to reconcile, explain or rationalize the actions of the adults in, or associated with, these schools. What they did in the schools was an abuse of human rights then, and now. 

Third, there are things you can do, now. Start listening. Start an active path of learning.  Start calling for change – this article provides many important ideas that we can all play a part in championing:

I ask you now… what are you going to do?