This article contains content about residential “school” that may be triggering. IndigiNews is committed to trauma-informed ethical reporting, which involves taking time and care, self-location, transparency and creating safety plans for those who come forward with stories to share.
In 2017, while I was working as a program evaluator, I arrived at a building in Kamloops for a meeting — not knowing that where I was going was a former residential school. After learning the truth, I felt gutted, but continued on with the meeting, where the facilitator explained to me that the basement room we were sitting in was once the boys’ recreation room. The walls were plastered with layers of white paint. The heaviness of past pain and sadness still seemed to linger in the room.
My family was in my thoughts as I flew home that evening with visions of that place being burned to the ground.
With my dad’s permission, he has allowed me to share that he attended day school. Day schools were similar to residential schools, although children were able to go home at the end of the day. My dad wanted me to mention that his parents, Murray and Mary McKenzie, both attended residential school. My grandfather Murray is also a survivor of tuberculosis and spent time as a youth in a sanatorium. My dad said that of the 30 boys who were in the tuberculosis ward, only six survived.
While bedridden with tuberculosis, Murray was given a camera. He later became a professional photographer and radio broadcaster.
I have been a child welfare reporter with IndigiNews for a year now, and I’ve learned that nothing can fully prepare you for the news of something horrific, especially when it has to do with children. It is often said that the child welfare system in Canada is the new residential school, given the high percentage of Indigenous children and youth in foster care.
The evening before I read the news of the 215 children found, my mother saw a large white owl charging towards her bedroom window. When she relayed this to me, I knew something was on the horizon.
The next morning, as I was beginning my day, I saw a news story about the findings of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I heard the cry of a thousand mothers, but somehow, at the same time, a deafening silence. It was like a bomb went off and I was standing too close, and it broke my ear drums.
My first thought, once I could think, was of my three children — ages seven, three and two — who are all Indigenous.
I love being a mother, and I crumbled at the thought of explaining to my children what residential schools, day schools and Indian hospitals were, and how they have impacted their grandparents and great grandparents. I can’t help but dwell on what we have lost — language, access to ancestral lands, stories, relationships, kinship.
My second thought was that this news is going to change everything, and be the precipice we need to begin real and meaningful truth-sharing.
I also recognized that if I am hurting in this way, there must be thousands of others. That day, I connected with Tsatassaya White from the Snuneymuxw First Nation to organize a gathering for people to collectively grieve.
We called the gathering ‘ilhe hi’kw’asum’ ‘u kwthu s’aa’lhulh stu’ehwulh — which translates to ‘All Together We Remember Our Children’ in Hul’qumi’num, the language of the Snuneymuxw people. Tsatassaya spoke with an Auntie, who suggested that instead of shoes, as other memorials were displaying, we ask people to bring teddy bears. We asked people to pin money to the teddy bears if they were able, with all of the proceeds going to Kw’umut Lelum — a delegated Aboriginal agency that provides culturally-informed programs and services for Indigenous children and youth who are in care, or may be at risk to be placed in care.
On a rainy afternoon on Saturday, May 29, we gathered at Swy-a-Lana, also called Maffeo Sutton Park. I’ve had so many fond memories there of walking my newborn baby in her stroller along the seawall, and playing with my kids at the playground. This day was sorrowful, and as I approached the event with my children, I witnessed all of the mothers with their little ones hanging off of their legs, being held in their arms, or being comforted in their strollers. One by one, they placed their teddy bears under a gazebo, and wrote memorial messages in colourful chalk.
That evening, as I sat and watched the sunset, a large cloud hugged the skyline. It was in the shape of a turtle. Above it were hundreds of little white wispy shapes. They looked like birds. I let myself breathe, taking in the nourishing songs, words, and tears shared at the gathering. I hugged my babies goodnight, studied their brilliant brown eyes and skin, and said a prayer to Creator, to guide us in a good way through this incredibly difficult time.
It’s now been a week since I first heard the news from Kamloops, and I’ve been having gentle conversations with family members, trying to piece together the broken parts of our shared history — long-forgotten stories that have now been unearthed and finally set free.
Moving forward as a journalist, a storyteller, and an intergenerational survivor, my hope is that I can continue receiving stories in a good way, and people feel safe to have me as a conduit to the spirit of the story. I’ve co-written a story on ways that non-Indigenous people can take action, and a story on how parents and educators can speak to children about residential schools. At this time, I don’t plan to do any further reporting on the Kamloops Indian Residential School to protect my spirit. I am bracing for what’s coming as truths continue to be unearthed, and the spirits of our lost children are set free.
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419.Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society aims to provide a “non-judgmental approach to listening and problem-solving.” The crisis line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-588-8717 or go to kuu-uscrisisline.com. KUU-US means “people” in Nuu-chah-nulth.
Anna McKenzie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse