North·First Person

My dad went to Lower Post residential school. He did not die of 'natural causes'

Monday's demolition of the last remaining residential school building in Lower Post, B.C., is not the end of the story, writes Lianne Marie Leda Charlie of Whitehorse.

The discovery of children's remains in Kamloops last month hit close to home, writes Lianne Marie Leda Charlie

'[My dad's] time at residential school was more than a dark chapter, it was a death sentence,' writes Lianne Marie Leda Charlie. (Submitted by Lianne Marie Leda Charlie)

This First Person article is the experience of Lianne Marie Leda Charlie, a Northern Tutchone woman from Yukon. Find out how to pitch your own story to CBC North here.

I am the daughter of a residential school survivor. 

I always want to add a qualifier when I say this because my dad only just survived. He died at the age of 35; the coroner said of "natural causes." 

People do not die of natural causes at the age of 35. 

Like many children of residential school survivors, I must piece together my family's history. For Indigenous people, our personal histories run parallel to systemic issues rooted in colonialism, racism and subjugation. Few in my family want to openly share what they experienced at residential school. Their memories are shrouded in violence, shame, tragedy and silence. 

I know bits and pieces of my dad's story and I've tried to fill in the gaps. This is what I know: there is a stark correlation between my dad's short life and his childhood at the Lower Post residential school in northern B.C. This will always serve as the plot of his story. His time at residential school was more than a dark chapter, it was a death sentence. 

After learning of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's discovery last month of children's buried remains in Kamloops, B.C. – well, less a discovery and more a confirmation of what their people already knew – I grieved surrounded by a select few: my sister, partner, mom and my dear sweet three-year-old son.

The First Nation's Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir said that some of the children found were as young as three. Those words ricochet through my head, like a sharp echo bouncing off mountains, violently searching for a place to land. I don't want to feel the stabbing pain of that truth. 

I sleep. I lose sleep. I eat. I eat more because I like that numb feeling. I hug my little boy so tight. I cry. I doomscroll Twitter and Instagram. I get some momentary relief from people posting their rage and orange squares. But it still hurts. 

A few friends text me to check in. One drops off dinner. Another shows up at my door, unannounced. We hold each other and cry on my doorstep.     

I take my son to the Catholic church in Whitehorse where people placed children's shoes — a poignant gesture turned national movement. Empty kids' shoes are haunting. They're just so small; the tiny feet of tiny, living humans are supposed to fill them. Supposed to.

Children's shoes at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, left to commemorate children who died at residential schools. (Lianne Marie Leda Charlie)

It's difficult to explain a mass burial site filled with children to a child. 

"Why did they die?" my son asks. I pause and answer, "the people who were supposed to care for them didn't. They hurt them instead." 

And more children will be found. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), confronted with story after story of kids' deaths and disappearances, knew this back in the 2010s. The commissioners proposed another project to properly document those deaths, but were denied.

"We need to begin to prepare ourselves" for more discoveries like in Kamloops, said former TRC chair Murray Sinclair earlier this month.

I open the TRC's final report to Volume 4, titled "Missing Children and Unmarked Burials." I do a quick search for "Lower Post." 

The TRC report makes clear that thousands of residential school students were likely buried in unmarked graves, and many have not yet been found or properly commemorated.

Some may be at Lower Post. 

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had to apply for funding to empirically unearth what its citizens already knew. The Catholic Church and the Federal Government did not fund this component of their joint colonial project; I imagine that they already knew too. 

I'm scared to ask my family members what they already know of death 

and graves 

and disappearances 

and night watchmen

at Lower Post. 

Demolition of the last building of the former Lower Post residential school in northern B.C. was scheduled to happen on Monday but has now been postponed. (B.C. Government)

My son nuzzles his head into my arm. We're laying together in my bed. It's 5:30 a.m. I woke up too early and so did he. He's confused by how much light is streaming in the window; he thinks it's time to start the day. 

He's going to turn four this summer. I've measured the length of his foot against my hand since he was a baby. He asks me to do it again and we both 'ooh' and 'aah' over the fact that his foot is almost the same length as my hand.

"You're growing so fast!" I say as I make a mental note to pull out the sneakers I ordered online and get him to try them on. Little shoes: they're supposed to be trivial. Just a regular part of playful, love-filled Indigenous childhoods. 

Soon, we will travel to Lower Post and witness the demolition of the last standing building of the residential school there. The same walls that trapped my dad and hid away the Catholic Church and federal government's darkest, most violent secrets will crumble to the ground. 

And when the time comes, we will brace ourselves for what may lie beneath.

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