Communities in Canada are in mourning after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed it found the remains of 215 undocumented children, including some as young as 3, buried under a former Catholic-run residential school in British Columbia.
The residential school system was a means of forced assimilation of 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples by the Canadian government. More than half the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, which, to date, has refused to apologize for its role. Abuse, malnutrition, and disease were common in the 139 confirmed residential schools in Canada, and resulted in thousands of children dying.
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996, and to this day, Indigenous children are being forcibly removed from their homes at alarming rates. The federal government acknowledged this week that there are more kids in care today than there were at the “height” of the residential school system.
With all this top of mind, how can we, especially those of us who aren’t Indigenous, support communities who are grieving? Here are some suggestions.
Unfamiliar with the real history of residential schools? The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) published five years ago summarizes tragic residential school experiences compiled from about 6,000 witness testimonies. Read the full report and 94 calls to action. An entire volume is dedicated to missing children and unmarked burial sites.
“In doing so, you are upholding the heavy lifting already done by the survivors, intergenerational survivors, and the TRC,” said the office of the chief of Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc.
“No one in the Indigenous community was surprised” by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s findings, said Michelle Robinson, who is Sahtu Dene, and an Indigenous activist and podcast host based in Calgary.
“All of our residential school survivors told us—all of it was actually in the reports that are available, and have been publicly available,” said Robinson.
There’s also the final report from the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry. Read that, too, experts say.
The point is to educate yourself, so that the Indigenous people in your life don’t have to keep rehashing traumas they’re either experiencing or are already familiar with.
Amplify Indigenous voices
It’s often tempting to share personal opinions online or with friends, but are you sharing those that matter most? Indigenous people and experts are overwhelmingly asking for others, especially non-Indigenous folks, to take a step back and amplify Indigenous voices.
“Do not centre yourself or your feelings in Indigenous issues. You’re here to learn,” Twitter user @ArnallLabrador said in a viral thread about meaningful allyship.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pass along Indigenous perspectives to your friends and family and children, though. “That’s another great thing for people to be doing because then, as Indigenous people we don't have to relive our pain by educating non-Indigenous people,” said Michael Redhead Champagne, a member of Shamattawa First Nation and the co-founder of Fearless R2W, a volunteer-run outreach group in Winnipeg that supports families navigating the system.
“We’ve been saying for decades and decades that there’s a problem, let's fix it. It took this horrific find for people to wake up and say, ‘Oh my god, there's a problem,’” said Champagne.
It’s actually pretty simple: “Listen to Indigenous voices and allow us to lead, and then follow our voice,” said Robinson.
“There are lots of Indigenous podcasts, there are Indigenous books, Indigenous magazines, and articles written by Indigenous people to read, and Indigenous movies and documentaries to watch,” said Robinson, who believes that each of these are “important to start with” in terms of learning about Indigenous issues.
If you don’t know where to start, some favourites at VICE World News are Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott, and Connie Walker’s award-winning CBC podcast, Finding Cleo. For kids, check out the book When We Were Alone by David Robertson.
Check in with your Indigenous friends and colleagues
Right now, Indigenous folks are hurting, so checking in with them matters. There’s a right way of going about it, though, by asking, “How are you doing?”
“One thing you should not say: ‘215 kids, how many more?’” Champagne said. “Don't ask me that question. Ask that question to the government, ask that question to the churches, and to the 139 places. That’s who you should ask.”
Robinson encourages people to do anti-racism training. “Everyone needs anti-racism training,” said Robinson, who said it “starts creating a safer space for Indigenous peoples to exist with non-Indigenous people.”
Put pressure on the Canadian government...
Five of the TRC’s calls urge the government to help communities investigate and document children who died or went missing while attending residential school, but only one has been put into effect: federal support for a national registry of children who died in residential schools. According to the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank, only eight of 94 TRC’s calls to action have been implemented in total.
“Pressure levels of government to implement these Truth and Reconciliation calls to actions related to child burials,” said Champagne, including demanding they search all residential schools for unmarked graves.
“Then, pressure governments to make sure there is clean water on reserves, improve the lives of families on reserves, and do whatever they can to support Indigenous children today.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also waging a court battle because his government is refusing to compensate some residential school survivors after Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal ruled it must. That’s another thing you can continue to bring up with your elected officials, according to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
...and the Catholic Church
Even though about half of residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, the pope has never apologized. Demand an apology from the pope and the Catholic Church (No. 58 of the TRC’s calls to action). If you’re a member, ask to learn about the church’s role in residential schools (No. 59).
“I’m not even sure an apology from the Catholic Church would make a difference at this point except for acknowledging the wrongdoing and genocidal acts that did take place,” Angela White, the executive director of Indian Residential School Survivor Society and member of Snuneymuxw First Nation, previously told VICE World News. In fact, many are calling on churches to go beyond expressing “sorrow” or apologies for the atrocities committed, and instead start sharing resources with Indigenous communities.
Even a Cree Anglican archdeacon said apologies ring hollow without concrete action. “Churches have the buildings and the money,” Travis Enright said, and those resources need to be shared for the purposes of reconciliation.
Robinson also encourages people to pressure the government to tax the Catholic Church.
Honour the children
When Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc reported that 215 children were found, the news marked what’s likely the start of a long journey. Many more sites just like it are expected. While most are undocumented right now, there are ways to acknowledge and commemorate the lost loved ones.
The government has yet to implement a national day of mourning to honour the children, something Kupki7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir and many others across the country are asking for. Amplifying those calls matters.
So does wearing an orange shirt. Orange shirts became a symbol for the many losses residential school students experienced after one survivor, Phyllis Webstad, shared how her orange shirt—decorated with eyelets and lace and given to her by her grandmother—was taken from her on her first day at residential school when she was 6 years old. Officially, September 30—the time of year when Indigenous children were forced to leave their homes and start school—is orange shirt day, but wearing one year-round, especially now, can raise awareness.
Support local Indigenous artists and businesses
A lot of Indigenous creatives go beyond selling products and services—they regularly post about Indigenous realities or donate proceeds to organizations pursuing Indigenous justice. Take Indigenous artist and beader @nalakwsis on Instagram. They put together several visual tributes to the 215 children, and many other Indigenous artists, including beader @threesistersbyemma, reposted them.
It’s a great opportunity to learn about colonialism, support Indigenous folks financially, as well as get some original art.
There are many organizations that support residential school survivors and Indigenous kids.
Donations to Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc will be used toward further investigating the site and memorializing the children.
Indian Residential School Survivors Society provides counselling and ongoing support.
To support residential school causes, donate to Orange Shirt Day Society.
Blackstock’s organization, First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, centres Indigenous children.
Follow Lysandra Nothing on Twitter. With files from Anya Zoledziowski
This article contains content about residential schools that may be triggering. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.