It was a day of healing and mourning on the North Shore as community members gathered wearing orange to honour the 215 Indigenous children discovered in a mass grave at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia last week.
Tiny pairs of colourful shoes now line the steps of St. Paul’s Indian Church in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) community of Eslhá7an.
Members from both Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, including residential school survivors, came together for a moving drumming circle and ceremony where they placed pairs of shoes at the site to represent the Indigenous children whose remains were uncovered in an unmarked grave at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
On May 28, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation shared the heartbreaking news that the remains of more than 200 children were found at the site with the help of a ground-penetrating radar. Children as young as three years old were found buried on the site of what was once Canada's largest Indigenous residential school — one of the institutions that held children taken from families across the nation.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend federally funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the Canadian government apologized in Parliament and admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools.
“There’s no nice way of saying it but the truth has to be told,” Reuben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation said, speaking passionately on the steps of St Paul’s Indian Church on May 31.
“It really resonated with me when my son Cedar turned five, how hard that would be to have your child taken away … and to have all those horrible things happen and be lied to about it.”
“Rape and starvation and murder. Now we know. We always knew that. They said only 50 students died there. Now, it's gone up to 215 and probably a lot more than that. That's one school.”
There were 28 residential schools in B.C. St. Paul’s Indian Residential school, which was located on the 500-block of West Keith Road in North Vancouver, was the only one in the Metro Vancouver area. It was run by the Catholic Church for 60 years until closing in 1959. The site is now home to St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary.
At the gathering, George became emotional speaking about his father, the late Terry Baker.
“My dad's over here in the graveyard and I think how different it would be if he didn’t experience something like this,” he said. “That I would have a dad.”
George continued that this wasn’t just his story.
“All of us here have the same story, right across Canada,” he said. “That’s what this church did. They hurt our people. When they hurt one, they hurt our whole community.”
Through his hurt and pain, George uplifted the crowd with inspiring words, sending his love to members and Elders as medicine. He said what was needed now was love, honour and strength to move forward.
“We have to stand united and be strong with one another,” he said. “Be strong and lift each other up.”
Residential school survivor and Squamish Nation Elder Bob Baker who attended the Kamloops Residential School for two years and was then sent to “that nightmare” that was St. Paul’s, continued George’s message of staying strong and healing.
"This is good medicine for us," he said. "Good medicine for everybody. All of us that were going to school, we didn't know at the time what was going on, but looking back now, we can see where those dark places were.
“Coming together like this is something that we have. It’s medicine for us. We know how to take care of each other, so let's do it.”
Squamish Nation hereditary chief Janice George thanked everyone for “coming here to hold each other up and to show each other love through these times.”
North Vancouver School District’s Indigenous Education team also gathered outside its education services centre for an intimate drum circle. One by one, 215 teddy bears were laid at the foot of NVSD’s Welcome Pole for the young lives lost. Meanwhile, Tsleil-Waututh Nation School held a healing circle for its students and members.
Canadian flags were also flown at half-mast across schools and the three North Shore municipalities to honour the children. The movement to wear orange is spreading across B.C. to encourage conversations in schools and to send the message that “every child matters.”
Calls are now being heard across Canada for expert examinations of all residential school sites, including St. Paul’s. Both Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations are in support of finding the truth.
“It’s time for us to think about what we’re going to leave for the future generations,” Janice George said. “What we are going to do now. We have things to look forward to. This is just the beginning of the work we are going to do.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in June 2008 to find the truth in the country’s dark and painful history of residential schools. Part of the commission’s 94 Calls to Action is to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.
“These children would have been Elders and members of our communities today, and we must honour them by joining forces to urgently call for Action 75 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to identify all cemeteries, residential school sites, and unmarked graves at which Indigenous children have been buried,” Squamish Nation said in a statement.
Just 10 out of the 94 Calls to Action have so far been completed.
“We as a Nation reaffirm our commitment to the remaining Calls and we urge the federal government, all institutions, First Nations leaders, and people of Canada to demand the implementation and completion of this work.”
“What the world has learned this past week from Kamloops is a moment for country-wide reflection, but also an action to urgently repair the intergenerational harm done to our peoples.”
-- With files from the Canadian Press
Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News