'It has never been a secret that children went missing': Will the loss of 215 be a watershed moment?

In late May, when it was announced that the remains of an estimated 215 Indigenous children had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, it was the leading news story across the country. Yet for many, it wasn’t “news” at all.
Children's shoes on the steps of the church at the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia. May 31, 2021. (CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

This segment originally aired on June 13, 2021.

When word that the remains of an estimated 215 Indigenous children had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School circulated in late May, it was the leading news story across the country. Yet for many, it wasn't "news" at all.

In Indigenous communities, the headlines brought grief, not surprise. The scope of violence caused by residential schools is well known among families. 

This raises the question of what a "hidden history" is, when it's known by so many. 

Daniel Heath Justice is a professor of Critical Indigenous Studies and English at the University of British Columbia, and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

We invited him to Unreserved to discuss how people can learn of and from these histories.

Here's part of his conversation with host Falen Johnson: 

Why do you think so much of residential school history still hasn't made its way out of Indigenous communities and into the mainstream?

Actor Sladen Peltier plays Saul Indian Horse in a film adaptation of the novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. (Courtesy Elevation Pictures)
I think there's a sense that this is only about Indigenous people, rather than being very much about settler-colonial Canada. And when we say "school", a lot of people think we mean an educational facility. But these were re-education and torture camps. I think we have to start naming them for what they were. Too few people know.

A couple of years ago a really dear friend visited me in Vancouver. She flew from Ontario, and on the flight she watched the film Indian Horse. (Indian Horse is based on the 2012 novel by Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. It centres on a First Nations boy who survives the residential school system and becomes a talented hockey player, until the trauma he experienced interferes with his life.)

When she arrived, she was just shattered. She said, "Have you heard of these residential schools?" I was a little taken aback. I didn't quite know what to do. My friend is not a racist person. She's not Indigenous, but she is very empathetic and very kind and thoughtful. 

I would have been inclined to be very rage-y, but this is somebody I know who's not unkind. So that shifted my level of patience a bit, and it made me tired, that she had not heard about residential schools until that film. 

That's actually similar to how I found out. I learned about residential schools from the movie, Where The Spirit Lives, in the '90s. I was a teenager and grew up 20 minutes from the Mohawk Institute Residential School. I had family members who went there. But it took a film in the '90s to teach me that history. Do you remember when you learned about this history?

Before I came to Canada to teach, I had a friend who recommended I read up on the residential school system. He said, "read the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and read about residential schools, because it's going to become a bigger issue." 

I had known about Indian boarding schools in the States, but I didn't understand the scope and the scale, or the longevity of the residential school system in Canada, until I started doing more of that reading. 
Katherine Cooper from the Mosakahiken Cree Nation consoles her friends outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at a memorial held June 4, 2021, to honour the estimated 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried in Kamloops, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It feels like this is a bit of a watershed moment in Canada. We've seen displays of 215 pairs of shoes on the steps of public buildings across the country, from the Salt Spring Island Public Library, to lining the edge of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill. There was a moment of silence ahead of an NHL playoff game. Flags have been lowered to half-mast. Orange shirts hang outside of suburban houses. Why do you think that this story has finally captured Canada's attention?

I don't know why now. It has never been a secret that residential schools had graveyards. It has never been a secret that children went missing. This should not have been a surprise. 

I think this time it's the scale of it: 215 children. That sounds like a crime scene. 

One child going missing should have been enough. But I think that "215" hit quite hard for a lot of people. And I've got to say, the scale of it was horrific for me as well. I know about these histories, but that was a bit astonishing. 

I also think part of this attention comes after the outpouring of grief for George Floyd. I think there's a much bigger reckoning about our histories happening.

Daniel Heath Justice, an author and professor at the University of British Columbia. (Daniel Heath Justice )
What role do you think social media plays in uncovering and sharing these histories?

I think social media can be a really important place for people to share their stories and talk about what that discovery meant to their family. 

It's also a really important place where non-Indigenous people can actually face the grief, anger and hope directly, and not have it so mediated as it often is in books. 

Sadly, it's also a place where denialists can run rampant and troll with unbelievable cruelty. But I think mainly it's a way to boost the signal about people's own personal experiences, on their own terms.

How do we go about uncovering these histories without causing more pain for people?

I don't know if we can do it without pain. I don't think we can unearth hidden histories without pain, because pain is a part of why they're buried. But we have to provide people with tools and resources to grapple with that in healthy ways. 

And I'm not just talking about Indigenous people's pain. I think that non-Indigenous people don't know how to deal with the horrors of histories that they have benefited from and inherited. I think oftentimes they want to run from it or project the grief as rage. I think a lot of the trolling isn't hate, I think it's grief unresolved. 

I see that as a teacher. I always have students, mostly non-Indigenous, occasionally Indigenous students, who are so angry that they lash out in really unproductive ways. But not because they don't care. It's because they care too much and don't know what to do with that. 

I think we need to find better ways of dealing with the grief and the pain for all of us, because that's part of the reason these things get hidden away. People think it's easier to bury it, but then the pain just gets stronger.
Two women perform a ceremony in front of hundreds of shoes on display in front of the office of the prime minister, a building that was up until recently called Langevin Block. Hector-Louis Langevin was a father of Confederation and a strong proponent of the residential school system. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

More terrible stories will come to light. How do we make sure that when these histories come to the forefront, that people don't become numb to it? 

That's the big question, right? That was the Truth and Reconciliation report's underlying, desperate appeal: "Do not forget. Do not get comfortable. Do not let this fall by the wayside." Of course, mainstream Canada is like, "Oh, great, we had the report done. We move on." 

A statue of Egerton Ryerson lies on the grounds of the university that bears his name after being toppled on June 6, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It's not going to stay part of our conversation without vigilance and insistence. Maybe it requires tearing down more statues of people like Ryerson.

Maybe renaming buildings and changing the narrative about the so-called "Founding Fathers of Confederation," many of whom were architects of this horrendous system. Maybe it means getting into really big arguments with people about what Canada is and means. 

I know that what I'm saying sounds exhausting. We are all tired. Families and survivors are very, very tired. But I think we need vigilance — and it has to be a vigilance born in love. We have to be thinking about the future of Canadian and Indigenous education. What does our future look like? 

What would you say to people who want to start to do something but don't know where to start?

Non-Indigenous people, where you're needed is: you need to talk to your people. Read the TRC report, read anything by Indigenous people about residential school. Read the Royal Commission report from the 1990s. Read the report of the inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Educate yourself. The University of Alberta has a really amazing online course on Indigenous Studies. Take the course, it's free. Schitt's Creek actor Dan Levy loved it. Do that education for yourself and then talk to your family. When you hear someone make some inane and obnoxious comment, confront them. Challenge them, educate them, teach them. It will make a difference if people have to be confronted on their racism and ignorance.

Jennifer Roberts at the Dene Nation gathering in Yellowknife to honour the estimated 215 children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.