Placed just a few steps away from the front entrance, just off the parking lot, they represented the children recently found in an unmarked mass grass on the site of a residential school in Kamloops.
"We just wanted to show our support and to honour the 215 Indigenous children that were uncovered last week," spoke organizer Faye Myshyniuk. "We also want to raise awareness. We hope that doing so will open people's eyes to the systemic racism that happens and how natives are treated to this very day. Then, hopefully, things will change for the betterment of our future generations."
For Myshyniuk, the effects of residential schools were not as prominent in her immediate family. "I didn't really grow up with it, and I wasn't that impacted. I know that my mom and dad were very silent about the whole topic." However, she did hear and see firsthand what others have dealt with in living with the trauma of residential schools. "There's a lot of alcoholism, and many people don't graduate, and there is poverty. There are all kinds of things that people cannot seem to get past. The cycle needs to be broken."
She said that residential schools were the first step in inter-generational trauma. "We still see the effects from those schools today. They say it's going to take seven generations to come back it." Myshyniuk said that the effects of residential school trauma are visible in the foster care system. "Indigenous children are stilly highly overrepresented. Indigenous women are severely overrepresented in our healthcare system, and in our prison system, both male and female Indigenous people are overrepresented." She said that Indigenous people are overrepresented in every marginalized piece of society. "It all stems from residential schools."
People often know more about atrocities in other parts of the world but fall short of understanding what really happened in Canada inside the walls of residential schools. The idea that Indigenous people should move past the trauma is further pushing trauma onto them. "We shouldn't just get over it," spoke Chelsea Beauchamp, Myshyniuk's daughter. "We experienced a loss of culture. Our family, our people, we lost our language. Some can speak a bit of Cree, but we lost our family's language. That is a direct impact on us. This impact is not in the past. It is still happening today. For our people to reclaim our culture is a hugely overwhelming task that we shouldn't have to fight for and work so hard for in the first place, and it feels like people just don't care."
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement identified 139 residential schools throughout Canada. Alberta housed 25 of them. However, there are likely more not accounted for in those numbers. Twenty-five and 139 do not include residential schools that operated outside of federal support, including those run by provincial governments or religious groups. For years, Indigenous leaders and allies have been calling on the federal government to help them find their lost people. The news of the gravesite located in Kamloops has made their cry that much louder. Using the same ground-penetrating-radar equipment at all former residential schools in Canada would be a significant step forward in reconciliation.
From the 1870s up to 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools. However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) says that the death estimates of about 4,100 could be too low. They estimate that the actual toll could be well over 6,000. In Alberta, over 800 Indigenous children lost their lives while attending residential schools. The last reported residential school to close in Alberta was in 1975, and the three faiths leading the schools were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist.
To give Canadians an understanding of what many Indigenous peoples suffered through, the TRC produced a report called "What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation" in 2015. Under the History title, on page 14, they give insight into how things began for so many. "It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning's events are still a shock. The officials have arrived, and the children must go. For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed."
The report includes personal stories from survivors who spoke of hearing children cry as they headed towards the schools. Officials would remove all traditional items and clothing from arriving students, effectively removing the children's connection with their parents and their culture. "Older brothers were separated from younger brothers, older sisters were separated from younger sisters, and brothers and sisters were separated from each other," read the TRC report. Children that defied the rules suffered terribly.
"Teachings about residential schools need to be included in the upcoming curriculum. The entire native perspective is completely not in it at all, and it needs to be," said Beauchamp. "I believe that in the future, education is how we can raise awareness. When I was in high school and elementary school, there was absolutely no mention at all about residential schools and that history. It is part of everyone's history. It should be told for exactly what it is so that something like this never happens again."
The shoes remained outside overnight, allowing residents to see the display. It is a reminder of the many other children who remain lost, yet to be found. "With how horrible it was, the atrocity of it, we have to make sure it's never repeated or that we don't grow up with hate," said Myshyniuk. "We are all human, and skin colour does not matter. So let's embrace where we come from and who we are." For the 215 children, Myshyniuk said that her heart hurts. "They deserved so much more. Rest easy little ones."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press