David A. Robertson
CBC, June 10, 2021
My grandmother, Sarah Robertson, attended Norway House Indian Residential School in the 1920s and early 1930s. She died having never told her story, other than to remark to one of her granddaughters how sad it had made her when they cut her hair. And to tell my mother that her sister had died while attending Towers Island Day School, but she’d not found out until long after Maggie’s death.
Her experience is lost history, a story that will remain forever untold. At Norway House Indian Residential School, officials fed children rotten food. Girls slept outside on balconies because enrolment was always overcapacity. Kids were tied up so that they wouldn’t run away. In 1907, a boy, Charles Cline, ran away after getting beaten for wetting his bed. He lost six toes after seeking protection from the elements in a shed. And how were school officials held accountable? Charles’s mom was given a bag of flour every month for the rest of the school year.
My grandmother may have experienced similar trauma or may have avoided it by some miracle, but we’ll never know.
Last week, the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three, were found buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School. Indigenous people knew a discovery like this was an eventuality as much as we know that it’s a tragedy that will be repeated. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission confirmed 3,200 deaths as part of its investigation, but Senator Murray Sinclair believes there could be closer to 25,000. If at least 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools in its 165-year history, that means 17 per cent of the children died while attending residential school. Some schools’ mortality rates were 40 per cent.
It can no longer be disputed that the residential school system was genocide, and the question now is: What are you going to do about it? Because outrage, thoughts and prayers, retweets and likes, are not enough.
I think the answer starts with stories. Stories have been, and always will be, the best way to educate ourselves about the truth. You have to recognize that you have the power to be the authors of reconciliation if you read as much as you can, listen as much as you can, learn as much as you can, and then take meaningful, informed action.
I don’t know your role, but I know that youth are inherently better positioned than anybody to create the sort of change we need to see, and so we need to focus on them. Stories reveal the world to kids — the world that was, the world that is and the world that can be. What kind of future do you want to have?
Here are some books by Indigenous authors to get you started on your learning journey. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. There are more stories out there.
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