Grieving for our children

By

Brenda Still

Boys follow a priest in a funeral procession in this photo likely taken at the Anglican-run Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, some time in the 1930s. Photo: General Synod Archives (P7538-616)

By Nii K’an Kwsdins (Jerry Adams)

A version of this piece appeared in June on the website of the diocese of New Westminster.

Nii K’an Kwsdins (Jerry Adams)

The May discovery of the remains of 215 children who were buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School, and the discovery of similar graves on the grounds of every residential school that has been examined, tears at the hearts of all of us who are working toward reconciliation.

As an Indigenous man of the Nisga’a Nation, I have spent most of my career on reconciliation. As a social worker; as someone pulling together urban Indigenous leaders in Vancouver; as a member of the Children’s Commission of British Columbia protecting the rights of our children; as a member of the Vancouver Police Board, and as a social justice worker for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster I have worked trying to educate, guide and connect the police, the churches and other community agencies to our Indigenous community. It has been emotionally draining work, that at times was done in isolation and with little or no support. It has also been draining to try to live up to the expectation that Indigenous people will show the way forward. Supposedly we should know, but we do not always have all the answers.

I have lived through so many disappointments over the years that I have been doing this work. The discovery of the remains of the 215 little ones buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School has brought more sadness to me. I keep wondering what else is out there for our people to give us more broken hearts. Don’t ask me about reconciliation but about the weight of pain we carry for our families—our parents, and our children.

Many more graves have been discovered since the first ones were found in Kamloops. And we will continue to find more unmarked burial places of our children across Canada. In response there have been churches burned down because of our lost children. Elders have suffered the trauma of having to recall their experiences in the schools—experiences that they could not speak about because they were so horrific.

I cannot imagine their feelings around what happened when their child did not return from residential school, and with no explanation from the churches or the schools. This is not just a historic event but an experience we still feel and live today. We are still living the losses, and it has re-awoken our broken hearts that we thought would be mended with the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations.

Our people are angered and hurt by such horrific hidden secrets. The Elders are barely holding our youth back from being angry, and taking action that would not go in the good way that we have been working at.

The churches and governments hid all of this from the people of Canada, yet the powers that be continue to claim they are fighting for the rights of our people. I am saddened by what I have tried to do in my life to assist different agencies, governments and churches to work together again, because now it seems like my heart has taken a step backwards. I feel that for all my efforts, I have been failed by the loss of our children.

Young girls pose for a photo at the Anglican residential school in Shingle Point, Yukon, around 1930. Two of these girls, Mabel Martin and Mary Tukuloak (believed to be at the far left and far right of the picture, respectively) died at All Saints Residential School in Aklavik, N.W.T., a few years later. Photo: General Synod Archives (P9901-552)

The loss of trust—and the fear of the churches, the government, and most institutions that service our people—is back again, and trust has to be rebuilt.

We need to rebuild trust by accountability. The Canadian government said it was the churches that killed the children and they should be held accountable. Yet it was the federal government’s Indian Act that forced our grandparents and our parents to ship our children off to residential schools.

History is not on the side of the governments and people of power that can make a difference. They have constantly promised changes, and funding that will make a substantial difference, and yet we Indigenous people are still waiting for the fulfillment of their promises of clean water, proper housing, proper medical care for our children and so many other promised changes. It is hard to believe in those words any more. And the discovery of the hidden deaths of our children is one more betrayal. We cannot work in new and creative ways with people that are not truthful to us.

Reconciliation is about wanting to work with each other. We need people to stop and feel what is in our hearts, so that the significance of the losses of these children does not disappear after the initial shock of the discovery of their bodies. We need you to be willing to listen to us as we guide ourselves through the next steps of trust and healing.

We need you to get to know us and get to know our protocols. If you are afraid to ask, just think of how afraid our children were as they entered the residential schools. And how afraid our mothers and our grandmothers were when they had to send away their babies.

Should I be angry at the betrayal of trust and the death of so many children in residential schools? Yes, I should. Should I be continuing my work as a teacher to build better relationships?

My heart is full of pain at the moment, but if I follow the teachings of my grandparents, my mom, and my Simgigat (the Chiefs of our Houses) and my Sigidimhaanak’ (our Matriarchs) then I know from their example that I must continue. They went to church, they believed in God and they worshipped deeply, even as their children were sent away. That is what devotion is all about, and they worked for change to give us better lives.

We are greatly saddened by the deaths of our children, and by broken promises, but we are not defeated. We still have our languages, our protocols and our culture. And although we grieve, the strength of our people is our family.

So walk with our people and listen not just to the words offered, but what our hearts are telling you. Then we can build a new reconciling relationship of empathy and trust and make changes together for a better Canada.

Nii K’an Kwsdins (Jerry Adams) is a Nisga’a citizen from Eagle Tribe, currently living in Vancouver. Until his retirement in September 2020, he served as the diocese of New Westminster’s missioner for Indigenous justice ministries.

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