Commentary – Shock; then choose healing

Pearl Lorentzen

Call me jaded, but I wasn’t shocked that there were unmarked graves of children forced to attend an Indian residential school in Kamloops.

Saddened yes, but not shocked.

However, I was shocked by a headline implying there were Canadians who hadn’t heard of the residential school system. I knew of people who doubted whether it really was as bad as people said, but it hadn’t occurred to me that people living in Canada in 2021 hadn’t heard.

I don’t remember when I first heard about Indian residential schools, but I know that by at least 2016 it was embedded in my psyche. I was studying abroad in Japan. I helped a young Japanese student with his masters application to a Hawaiian university. He wrote something about a residential school – meaning boarding school. I suggested he use a different word.

I’m not sure if it would have had the same implications in Hawaii, as I don’t know the specifics of the American colonization of Hawaii. I assume there are some differences from how England and France colonized eastern Canada and Canada colonized what is now the Prairie provinces and Territories. However, people are talking about residential schools now.

At the Slave Lake memorial [which was one of several in the area], people came together in solidarity beyond ethnicity. Two Swan River First Nation residential school survivors spoke about their experience, and their healing journey. Driftpile and Swan River council members spoke. As did the Sawridge First Nation chief. At the last minute, the organizers asked Town of Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman to say a few words.

The Driftpile and Swan River drummers and singers joined forces. There was prayer, smudging, singing and dancing. Then everyone walked from the Slave Lake Friendship Centre to the Town of Slave Lake office. There was a memorial there with shoes and teddy bears.

The overarching focus was on healing and that the discovery of these children’s graves was a beginning, not an end. Nancy Chalifoux from Driftpile First Nation danced. She is the daughter of residential school survivors and her mother is one of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.

At the memorial she said, “Inter-generational trauma has affected our lives greatly, but I also want to remind everybody that in our hearts and in our spirits we also carry inter-generational healing. And it is through us and our sharing that healing will happen.”

It is my hope that healing will be the result of the discovery of the 215 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc children. That the discussions of people living in Canada around Indian residential schools will be done with respect and a willingness to listen.

Six years ago, I had no problem imagining that a Japanese university student in Japan would not associate the words residential school with a government’s policy of cultural suppression. He had no reason to know.

If I were to travel to Japan again, I still wouldn’t expect people to have heard of the Canadian or American residential school systems.

However, I was shocked that Canadians had not thought about the residential schools at least in passing. All of us were shocked by some part of the story.

Once the shock passes there is a choice: let anger fester or take steps toward healing. It is my hope that I, you, and us collectively will choose healing.

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