By Brenda Still
As an early childhood educator, I have a “kid filter” in my brain. I know that children watch everything we adults do. They listen to our conversations, they watch our body language, and—no matter how hard we try—they hear and see what is broadcast on the news and in social media. My kid filter has been in overdrive this summer, first with the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds near the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and then increasingly as this number has continued to grow with the searching of other schoolgrounds.
I cannot stop thinking about how the children I spend my days with might interpret this information. The details, the timeline, the social context, and the Canadian colonial history are lost on today’s children. All they know is that children went to school, they died at school, and the school dug a hole and put their bodies there. So many past experiences with children have shown me that when children hear about other children being harmed or in dangerous situations, they identify with the “other” child and internalize the question, “If this can happen to that child, might it happen to me?”
This act of identifying with the other was at the root of a conversation I had with a Grade 4 boy, several years ago. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, written by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai, was part of his classroom’s literary studies. Each day he would come to his after-school childcare program and need to talk with me about what he was reading. He was able to personalize the story and understand that if his family lived in northeastern Pakistan, it would be dangerous for his sister to go to school. He was old enough to understand that his family was safe from this experience because they were in Canada. But I could see he could still not shake the question that if this happened to Malala, what was preventing it from happening to his little sister?
Children’s questions cut to the heart of a situation. When our eldest son was in Grade 5, with the help of his dad, he presented the Blanket Exercise to his class. The Blanket Exercise enables participants to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of European colonization on the First Peoples of North America. Our son and his dad did a bit of reworking to make the text more kid-friendly for his class. After the experience, the children wrote notes to the presenters. The main question coming out of this activity was, “Why didn’t the adults protect the children?” Once again, the time and history were lost on these children—they believe that adults protect children. If these adults that they were hearing about failed to protect these children, could their adults fail to protect them?
Children are once again hearing about adults failing to protect children. These adults they are hearing about are the big guardians in their lives: people who work in schools, such as teachers; people they see at their church—their priests and pastors; people in their homes—their parents and extended family. These are all people they expect to provide them with security.
Children instinctively seek connections with the people around them, and they are hardwired to expect adults to protect them. One connection that children in Manitoba schools are developing is the understanding that they live and learn on Treaty One territory. They hear the land acknowledgement read out each morning as part of their schools’ announcements. They have also made connections with the children who historically attended Indian residential schools during Orange Shirt Day. Outside of my front window I see 215 orange ribbons tied to the fence. These ribbons were placed there by the children who attend this school this spring, on Orange Shirt Day.
My kid filter tells me that today’s children need to hear and see the adults in authority clearly demonstrating their intent to value these little lives that were lost. For me, this means that the leaders in the church, and in my case, the Anglican Church, need to move heaven and earth to ensure that all children are accounted for. When church leaders speak, the time that has passed since the first child went to residential school blurs for the children who are listening. The historic successes and the historic failures are ours to hold today. It is time for those with authority to acknowledge those children that are buried on the grounds of former Indian residential schools, take responsibility for the crimes of their predecessors, and show today’s children that all children matter. Neither time nor space, nor principalities can separate them from the love they once knew.
Brenda Still is an early childhood educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She has over 30 years of experience working and playing with children in both the early learning and child care setting as well as the church setting.