Colonial Schools maybe, colonial monuments no

Some of Canada’s Indigenous people have decided to keep their Residential Schools despite the fact that they hold so many painful memories.One of those is the largest Residential School in Canada on the Kamloops Indian Reserve.

Image: Woodland Cultural Centre, Six Nations

Former Kamloops chief Manny Jules said there have been many debates over the years about the future of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School but band members have decided to keep it as a reminder to future generations that their children will never go through such an experience.

Jules said the federal government offered Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc $70,000 in the 1970s to tear down the school but they declined the offer.

“What we said at the time is we want to turn these buildings into a legacy for language, history and culture, for education and all those other aspects,” said Jules. “Why tear it down?”

Not so for the Okanagan Indian Band in Vernon. They want the federal government to remove three former day schools for Indigenous children that the Chief Byron Louis called “symbols of trauma.”

“A number of our community members won’t even set foot in there unless they absolutely have to,” said Chief Louis. He would like to see the structures replaced with “places of healing.”

The Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Brantford, Ontario, has restored their Residential School as a “site of conscience.” Now called the Woodland Centre, they plan on guided tours that will take visitors through the building from the perspective of a child, separated from parents, language and culture to arrive in this foreboding place. Different rooms – such as the dining hall and the dormitories – will be restored to different periods in the long history of what was the first residential school in Canada.

While the preservation of colonial schools is debatable, the preservation of colonial monuments is not.

The recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has sparked a debate about what to do with one of the remaining statues of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, in Kingston, Ontario. That’s where Macdonald grew up, practised law and served as a Member of Parliament.

Both monuments, architectural and artistic, evoke a painful chapter in the lives of Indigenous people. Both represent Canada’s colonial past.

The difference is that schools are built on Indian Reserves where Indigenous people have control of them. For those Indigenous people who support the schools, they are not monuments to colonialism but living monuments to the resilience of the survivors.

Statues of Macdonald are located in non-Indigenous locations and open to attack by groups with agendas other than the legacy of colonialism.  On July 19, 2020, a group of about 30 people gathered at Ryerson University in Toronto, organized by Black Lives Matter-Toronto, and defaced another Macdonald sculpture with paint. One protester said:

“Defacing the monuments and having the art display done is actually I think a really good way of showing Canada’s long-standing history of violence of both Black and Indigenous communities on these lands.”

For non-Indigenous Canadians, monuments to Macdonald are a painful reminder of the way we treated Indigenous people. It’s best that they are stored away out of sight, out of mind.

The graves of Indigenous children cry out for justice

The discovery of children’s graves at the Kamloops residential school was not a surprise to many. What made the findings so graphic was the stunning detail of the remains as revealed by ground-penetrating radar.

image: Inside Edition

Deceased children as young as three, sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sometimes just buried in shallow graves, were buried in the grounds around the school.

While the discovery was startling to national and international audiences, it was no surprise to former residents of the school.

“It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools,” said Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous member of the Ontario legislature.

And the graves were no secret to those who dug them, such the former students of the Edmonton Indian Residential School. One such student, Jackie Williams, remembers being hired to dig some of the graves when he was a child.

As long as the remains of children remained hidden under often grassy fields, out of sight, we didn’t have to face the horror of this open secret.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has brought details of the remains to the surface and to anguished scrutiny.

GPR may be revealing but the process is not as simple as, say, X-rays. First, a GPR machines about the size of a toaster on wheels are pulled around the area to be surveyed. Initial scanning only takes about as long as it does to walk the grounds being searched.

Then data is downloaded and processed by computers. The set-up cost about $35,000 and requires training to interpret the images.

While the GPR images may look like little more than “blobs” to the untrained eye, experienced researchers can recognize details.

A bit like ultrasound images, I imagine. I watched as an ultrasound was done on my abdomen. Fuzzy images floated into to view on the screen. What I saw as fuzzy blobs, the trained health professionals saw as my liver, kidneys and spleen –and measured with great accuracy.

Dr. Terence Clark is skilled in the use of GPR. He used it to discover gravesites at the former residential school on the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan in 2018.

Cark, a University of Saskatchewan researcher and professor who specializes in community-based archeology, said: “It seemed like this was a validation that their memories were real, this really happened, and they wanted to see it on the screen. They wanted to know that what they experienced was true.”

As researchers view the underground images, it must be like an under-earth diver swimming through rocks, bones, and other artifacts. As details emerge, the children come to life and cry out for justice.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and former judge who is of Cree and Scottish descent said: “To me, the dead children themselves in this Kamloops school, and others, have human rights. We have an obligation to them to provide respect for the deceased and take practical steps to address the indignity that might’ve been done to them and their bodies.”

Kamloops is now the focus of global attention in a way that I would have not have preferred. But there we are, and now we need to cooperate with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to see that justice is not only done but seen by the world to be done.