This past month has indeed been difficult for our aboriginal neighbours finding the graves of their children who never returned from residential schools. And sadness for many of us, learning of those findings.
What I knew about residential schools was slim. I’d watched an aboriginal youth play about the schools around the time I began to write for publication. And sometime later, I read Jennifer Maruno’s children’s novel, Totem. What I didn’t know was that those “schools” housed children as young as three and four, and that the quarters were tight and the child population too high for the space and provisions allowed. What I’m trying to understand now is how it all started, in a document titled They Came for the Children. Not an easy document to read, but perhaps essential for understanding.
I questioned in a conversation on Facebook recently, whether any of the deaths might be attributed to disease that was prevalent in those times. I thought of tuberculosis and other disease, and on reading more, figured that children—or anyone—crowded together in cramped quarters, receiving inadequate care or treatment of illness… well, disease is going to spread. I pictured small children, ill on their cots, crying for their mamas and getting no loving touches. And older kids and the harsh treatment reported and no one to turn to for protection. It saddened me that the people taking care of them, who should know the love of God, could be so cruel.
In making my way through the document, They Came for the Children, I’m learning more than I ever wanted to know about what colonization meant to the natives of our country and their treaties.
People speculate that the numbers will grow much higher as elders seek necessary records of the children taken away and who never returned. How does a nation recover from that kind of staggering loss?
Recently I had a short conversation with First Nations storyteller, Rhonda Donais-Walsh, whom I had occasion to hear at an online writer’s event in May. I had replied before the news of the first findings. I had messaged her to tell her how I had enjoyed her storytelling and her use of puppets. Rhonda was replying to my message.
I took the opportunity to extend my condolences on the recent horrific news. She had told us at the event that she was of the first generation that did not attend residential school.
She appreciated my mention, saying, “Thanks. The elders had been trying to tell people for years, and no one would believe them.” She added, “The statistics are devastating to the degree of poverty, incarceration, overdoses, and kids in care. I hope with everything that has come to light, healing can begin.”
As I catch my breath, I imagine her doing the same. She wrote, “The past is a horrible story. I believe now that the truth is out, people can start to change and grow, forgive and understand. That's my hope.”
Truth is an important word here. We know the story now. How do we act on it?
She wrote, “Indigenous people are beautiful, generous, kind, humble, caring folk. We always find a reason to smile, and feel grateful. I know I do!”
Now is our opportunity to walk alongside them, let them know we care, and try to understand the laws that led to it and how they need to change. That’s the reconciliation part. To love our neighbour as ourselves, no matter who they are or what their story.
Carolyn Wilker, author, editor, storyteller