Since the news of the discovery of the unmarked mass grave in which the remains of 215 children were buried, I’ve listened as various politicians, commentators and even friends have used words like: unbelievable and shocking. Unbelievable and shocking? I wonder? I wonder how there can be anyone who has lived in Canada for more than a decade or so, who can honestly claim to be surprised, let alone shocked at this news. Royal commissions, government inquiries and survivors have been testifying for decades about the horrors of the residential school system, the sixties scoop, sexual abuse, neglect, torture, murderers, disappearances, deaths, and generational trauma. If we are surprised, shocked or can’t believe it, I suspect we have only ourselves to blame. I am a settler in this land, and I expect that many of you are settlers as well. Our histories as settlers are intertwined with the histories of the families of all those many children who suffered for generations; children who paid the price for our privilege, children who even now continue to suffer the effects of intergenerational trauma. We have known for a long time now. This news should not shock us, precisely because it is so very believable. We’ve known it for far too long to be excused from our own ignorance.
Echoes of this tragedy first began to reach me some fifty years ago. I went to school, high school, on the West Coast in a small town called Ladner. Today, Ladner is pretty much a suburban bedroom community from which people commute to their jobs in the city of Vancouver. But back in the early 1970’s, Ladner was just a small fishing village. It was a terrific place to go to high school; that’s if you were white and middle-class. I don’t really know how it was for the handful of folks who weren’t part of the white-privileged majority. Looking back on it now, I can see that minorities were marginalized.
I remember when I was in grade ten; a new girl showed up in our classes. Shirley, we were told, came from somewhere way up north, in British Columbia. I remember our homeroom teacher introduced Shirley as, an Indian who had travelled south for her education. We were told that there weren’t any high schools where Shirley came from, so she had to leave her family behind and come down to Ladner all by herself. Shirley was boarding with a family in Ladner.
About all I can remember about Shirley’s first days with us is the unusual way that Shirley dressed. Back then there was a sort of dress code; we all wore the same stuff; blue jeans, which dragged on the ground, and both boys and girls wore the same kind of white tee-shirts and you just had to have the latest thing in footwear: a name-brand pair of leather sneakers. We thought we were so cool, with our anti-style look, which in our rebellious naiveté we didn’t realize was actually a style in and of itself. But Shirley didn’t fit in. Shirley wore clothes which we openly mocked as “stylish.” I remember that all her cloths looked new and expensive, as if someone had taken her out and bought her an entire wardrobe of old people’s cloths; and by old people I mean 30 somethings. Shirley just didn’t look like one of us. But that didn’t really matter because Shirley wasn’t one of us and so we never included her in anything that we did.
I remember a social studies class in which the teacher asked Shirley to tell us about her life in Northern British Columbia. The tale that Shirley told us about the reservation on which she lived was unbelievable to our young, ignorant, ears. Shirley claimed that she had been forced against her will to leave her family behind and travel all by herself to live with a family that was only interested in the money that the Indian Affairs department paid them for her room and board. She said that her parents would be thrown into jail if they didn’t allow her to be taken away. She said she’d run away several times, but that she’d always been caught and then they would punish her family because she’d missed so much school. So, she claimed that her family hated living on the reservation. Shirley told us that it wasn’t safe on the reservation because most of the men drank. My classmates asked all sorts of questions, but there was something in the way they asked the questions which made it clear that none of us believed a word Shirley was saying. How could any of this be true? Nobody would ever take kids away from their families by force. We refused to believe that parents could be thrown into jail if their kids don’t go away to school. Besides, why would our government send you to a school so far away; why not just send you to a school nearer the reservation so that you could go see your folks on weekends? Shirley and an answer for that: according to her the government picked schools that were far away so that the Indian kids wouldn’t just run away from school and head back home. The only way home for Shirley was on an airplane and the government only gave her two tickets a year. Besides there was nothing to do on the reservation. So, she might as well stay south. Even if she hated it. When the teacher asked Shirley about conditions on the reservation, Shirley spoke really softly about there not being enough water and food to go around. One of us said, “that was because they spent all their money on booze and cigarettes.” Shirley began to cry, and the teacher abruptly ended the conversation. Later in the cafeteria, there was a lot of conversation about the lies we were convinced Shirley had told us. We simply did no believe a word Shirly said. I refused to believe her at all. I mean really, in my young mind, I thought, this is Canada after all. Canada is a great country, a good place. My parents brought us to Canada because it’s the land of opportunity. To my shame, I remember thinking, if Shirley’s people were having a tough time, it was not our government’s fault. I believed they had only themselves to blame. I believed this because I was taught that all we had to do was to work hard and we would get ahead. My culture insisted that they, those Indians must not care enough about the way they live to bother to improve their life. I was raised to believe that Canadians are good people; we’re not racist. My ignorance was matched only by my arrogance.
I had a naïve understanding of this country. I was taught to look at Canadian history through rose-coloured glasses. I was taught about the honour and gallantry of the early settlers of this land, hard workers one and all; good honest people who’d left the hardships imposed on them behind, in their homelands so that they could build lives for themselves here in Canada. I was not taught, and I knew nothing of the world which Shirley described. We weren’t taught anything about broken treaties, or the abuses perpetrated by the Indian Affairs Department, and we’d certainly never heard about the travesty of residential schools. The conditions Shirley tried to tell us about and the circumstances in which she found herself sounded unbelievable to us. So, we assumed she had to be lying. Ignorance and denial were not just our collective responses to Shirley’s story, in my heart of hearts, I chose to believe my own culture, never once considering that Shirley even a culture of her own. None of us stopped to consider the dignity of the First Peoples of this land. None of us even imagined the wisdom of Shirley’s elders, or the beauty of her sacred stories.
So, the good people of Ladner, myself included, we continued to marginalize Shirley. Her story was too unbelievable, and we were too incapable of seeing beyond our carefully constructed version of reality. But Shirley’s story as unbelievable as we found it; her story pales in comparison to the countless stories of those children who were scooped up and forced into the residential school system.
Nearly fifty years have passed, since we refused to believe Shirley. In 1996, the last of the residential schools was finally closed. Since then, we’ve all been told countless stories of sexual abuse, torture, neglect, violence and death. When I consider the courage, it took for Shirley to tell her story, only to be met with our refusal to believe, I can’t help but marvel at the steadfast courage of the countless survivors who have testified over and over, again and again only to be met by justice delayed.
So, this week as we all gaze at all the memorials which have cropped up all over this land, all those tiny little shoes neatly lined up in rows, 215 little lives, tossed aside to make a way for settlers to walk, I wonder: do we finally believe it? In our grief, will we let the truth of their little lives transform us? As we weep, will we finally listen and actually hear the stories of survivors? Will the generational trauma of our indigenous sisters and brothers penetrate our ignorance, denial, arrogance, self-righteousness, or worse yet, our indifference? What form will our confessions take? What shape will our penance turn into? What sacrifices will we offer for the sake of justice? What tangible fruits will emerge from our promises to do better? I don’t know, how we will learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But I do know, that if those little lives mean anything to us, at all, then, in the name of ALL that IS HOLY, we must, urgently learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
May the GREAT SPIRIT in whom we are ONE, move us beyond our tears, beyond our grief, beyond our pain, beyond memorials, so that the wounded may heal, even as we, the wounders learn to embody the LOVE which unites us all in the work of justice. Amen.