By Mike Baker
The recent discovery of an unmarked mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia hit Haliburton resident Ashley Wilson hard.
The find, made public on May 29 by the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, made international news, shining a spotlight once again on Canada’s past and its infamous residential schooling system.
Wilson was just going about her day when the news came in, hitting her like a ton of bricks.
“I would say my first reaction was devastation. Just absolute devastation. Obviously I was aware of the residential school system, and there have been discoveries [of grave sites] in the past, but to have one of this magnitude was just so upsetting,” Wilson told the Echo. “I, myself, have Indigenous relatives, and it’s something I’ve always been really passionate about – making sure these horrific things that happened, these horrific events aren’t forgotten about. That we recognize our past and remember all those who were exposed to the residential school system.”
Canada’s residential schools were compulsory live-in boarding schools operated by the federal government and religious authorities, taking Indigenous youth away from their home with the aim of forcibly assimilating them into settler culture. From around 1863 to 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and placed in these schools.
The site discovered last month sat on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which closed in 1978. At one time, the school had as many as 500 students enrolled and was considered the largest residential school in Canada.
Last week Wilson organized a memorial at Head Lake Park to recognize and remember the 215 victims. She called on local residents to place a pair of children’s shoes, boots or sandals on a spot close to the fountain to pay their respects to the youth whose lives were cut so terribly short.
“It’s important that we have [memorials like this in communities all across Canada], because people need to honour these children. They need to recognize the impact residential schools had on the Indigenous community and the impact they still currently have,” Wilson said. “Canada’s last residential schools closed in 1996, so there’s around 80,000 residential school survivors living in our country, with that trauma, every single day. I think it’s important for people to understand that.”
As of press time there were dozens of pairs of footwear left at the site in Haliburton, something Wilson says is “very touching.”
She has spoken to many of the people who have stopped by, most of whom brought their children along. Wilson feels it’s important that youth be educated about the residential school system and the impacts it still has on society today.
“We need to take every opportunity to educate, and to teach our children – I think that’s very important. I just told my kids the basics, that Indigenous children were taken from their families and the difficulty surrounding that, what it did to their families, what it did to the children themselves,” Wilson said. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about, it’s such a heavy topic and it gets me emotional, but without these kinds of difficult conversations real, long-lasting change cannot be made.”
Following the discovery, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news was a “painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter” of Canada’s history. While Wilson doesn’t doubt Trudeau’s sincerity in making those remarks, she pointed out that the federal government has spent considerable time and resources in recent years fighting residential school survivors in court.
“That’s very sad to me. Seeing the trauma that took place and still exists today – families completely torn apart by this. Families not knowing what happened to their children. I think Canada needs to accept the role it played in this. It’s awful and it’s sad, it’s sad that it ever happened, but our government needs to take responsibility for the role they played. That’s the only way for things to move forward,” Wilson said. “To me, fighting survivors in the courts is not OK.”
Back in 2008, the Canadian government, at the time led by Stephen Harper, formally apologized for the part it played in establishing and operating the residential school system. A recent third-party assessment on the government’s reparation program noted that more than $3 billion has been paid out to around 28,000 victims of abuse since 2007.
Now that the families of the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential Schools have finally gotten closure, Wilson is calling on other residential school sites to be searched.
“We know this sort of thing likely [happened in other places]. All of these sites should be thoroughly checked for mass graves. There are still so many unanswered questions for so many families. There are still so many children who need to be returned home,” Wilson said.