Residents from Thamesville and beyond came out to a memorial last week to honour the 215 children found buried at a residential school in Kamloops, BC.
The Tecumseh Monument was the setting for the drive-thru vigil. People paid respects from their vehicles and there were volunteers on hand to accept items to be left in memory of the children. The site quickly filled up with tiny shoes, stuffed animals, candles, notes and drawings.
Mary-Kate McTavish organized the event on short notice. She says in addition to honouring the children, “We also wanted to educate our community about what residential schools were actually like and what we can do to honour the communities around us and help heal.”
The subject is personal to McTavish whose father is from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. He and his five sisters were all taken from their family as children and sent to live at separate homes. Her father was placed with a Scottish family. Only recently has he been able to reconnect with some of his siblings and achieve status recognition.
“I know he finds it very difficult and hard on a lot of personal levels that we can’t understand, even myself,” says McTavish of what her father was forced to endure.
He’s now able to finally start passing some of his original roots and customs down to his daughter. “Now it’s my turn to try to pay back to my community and help them out in any way I can,” says McTavish.
McTavish is also a teacher and says it’s important for children to fully learn about residential schools. “Our education system is definitely getting better compared to when I was a child… I hardly ever learned about residential schools in my history classes,” she says of her classroom experience in the 2000s.
“So we are definitely trying to bring more awareness to it even from a young age in the education system because we want to teach our young children that this is not okay. We do not want to repeat things from the past and we want to make sure that all cultures and identities are valued in our society.”
“We failed these children and we don’t want to do that again,” she says.
McTavish says there’s a widespread belief that residential schools are a remnant from deep in Canada’s past. But the last school didn’t close until 1996 and there are thousands of residential school survivors alive today.
She says Indigenous communities “are having reoccurring traumas and intergenerational traumas from residential schools… it’s not history, it’s still ongoing. There’s still a lot of healing happening in our community that needs to be done and we’re far from that.”
Visitors to the memorial received an information pamphlet on further steps they can take to help victims of residential schools. McTavish says a good start is to research what land you’re living on and what Indigenous communities are in the area. This research can trigger more concrete action about respectfully helpful steps that can be taken. “Get out of your comfort zone and learn what’s going on around you,” she says.
Volunteers were at the memorial all day to arrange items and assist visitors. McTavish says she was encouraged by the turnout of all backgrounds and age groups, including a group in the morning that performed a singing, dancing and smudging ceremony.
“I think it’s great to see that our country is recognizing what it’s done and that they’re trying to do better and trying to honour the victims of residential schools and the children and the families,” she says.
“My hope is that this doesn’t just go away, that this is more of a turning point that we start to see more of.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent