On being ... attention focusing

By Ingrid Sapona

The story that surfaced in late May of the finding of the remains of 215 children buried at a former Indian Residential School in B.C. made news around the world. About a month later, the Cowessess First Nation announced the preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at the former site of a Saskatchewan Indian Residential School. The unmarked graves were found using ground-penetrating radar. Experts expect many more graves will be found on the grounds of other Indian Residential Schools across the country.

The first Indian Residential School opened in 1828 and the last one closed in 1996. Stories about children who went to Indian Residential Schools but never returned have been told for years. We’ve had some idea of the scope of the issue ever since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada Report. One of the findings announced in the Report was that the TRC identified the names of, or information about, more than 4,100children who died of disease or accident while at Indian Residential Schools.

The leader of the Cowessess First Nation, Chief Cadmus Delorme, eloquently spoke about the significance of the finding of the unmarked graves and of this moment. He explained that the Cowessess community will now work to honour the buried by putting names to the people in the graves. He acknowledged that doing so will hurt, as it will trigger some of the pain that many Indigenous children endured at the school. He called on Canadians to stand beside Indigenous people as they heal and get stronger. He also asked Canadians to open their minds to the fact that the Country needs to have truth and reconciliation.

Somehow the finding of the unmarked graves has brought the issue of Indigenous relations to the fore in a way that release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report didn’t seem to. Maybe the idea of 4,100 dead children was just too big a number for folks to comprehend. Or maybe, because the Indian Residential School program ran for over 160 years, people somehow rationalize the figure (4,100) as translating to “only” about 25 children per year. But 215 is a number that people seem more able to comprehend – after all, that could be the number of kids in one grade at the local elementary school.

The immediate official reaction to the news was the lowering of flags to half staff. “Every Child Matters” became the catchphrase and orange quickly became the colour associated with the issue of the treatment of Indigenous children. (I must admit to ignorance here – perhaps orange has long been associated with Indigenous matters, as it’s the colour featured in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission logo and graphics.) Colour-coded ribbon campaigns have been around so long that I almost find them meaningless. But, I couldn’t help but stop when I saw this on a recent walk:

The photo shows a public elementary school in my neighborhood. The school’s on a fairly busy street and the playground is protected by both railings and a fence. The orange ribbons tied on the schoolyard fence and tree are a nice gesture, for sure. But, the fact they are tied on a sturdy fence that protects children at play at that school also drives home the difference in the level of care afforded kids there versus the care provided to Indigenous children at Residential Schools.

While symbols like ribbons and lowered flags are moving, they don’t necessarily stir emotions enough to prompt dialog, much less change. Perhaps as a result of this, others have taken to different ways of drawing attention to the issues. On another recent walk I came upon a series of spray-painted messages that provide a much more vivid sense of the stain the Indian Residential School system has left on Canadian society and our collective psyche. Here are a few pictures of the crude – but powerful – messages: 

I’ve always hated when people deface things with graffiti, but these scrawlings have moved me in ways I can barely express. The method of communication reflects the rawness of the feelings of so many. These messages are way more powerful than any anodyne sign proclaiming Every Child Matters.

We can’t erase past harms and injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. But, we owe it to them to acknowledge how we have treated them and to do all we can to help them heal. Restorative justice is the purpose of reconciliation and we’ll never get there unless we stop denying the racism that underlies the notion of assimilation.

Indigenous leaders have used this moment to urge Canadians to read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report and to take concrete action toward implementing the Commission’s 94 Calls to Actions. That certainly seems the least we can do…

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona




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