Our collective shock at the recent grim discovery of 215 children’s bodies at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., means one thing: that we didn’t listen. Indigenous people have been trying to tell Canadians for years about residential school system tragedies; to our shame, we have not really heard or understood. If we had listened intently – the way we might expect others to listen to us when we share what we know to be true, even without “proof” – then perhaps we might be further along the healing journey that we need to take as a country, as a people, and especially as members of the church.
As a young man, I visited an isolated reserve in northern B.C. An Indigenous elder added the initials “PK” behind his name when introduced to me. Just as I started to ask “Pastor’s Kid?” he stated he was a “Priest’s Kid” from the nearby residential school. Seeing the look of disbelief on my face, he clarified: “my father was the Father” at the school. What impression did I make on him, in this short exchange? I never found out. Did he feel unheard? Did he sense that an educated, privileged member of the dominant culture would not believe that a priest would father a child with an Indigenous student? Because of our differences, I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Even worse, he realized it faster than I did. I grieve for this moment and so many more like it that I have caused over the years.
Ears that do not hear
Too many of us simply prefer not acknowledging or taking responsibility for the inconvenient truth of Canada’s history and the church’s complicity in that history. We turn away from listening to such stories and from those who have been telling them because they make us uncomfortable. We dismiss them as “far-fetched” or “from a long time ago,” or we wonder what is wrong with people who “cannot get over it.” We minimalize them by making erroneous comparisons to our own people’s experiences. In short, we have not listened to the many, many stories from Indigenous peoples about the abuses they suffered in the residential school system because we really do not care enough. That may sound harsh, but if we actually cared we would have taken concrete steps as Canadians and as Christians to support the 94 Calls to Action found in the TRC Report, several of which specifically address the issue of missing children through creation of a death register, commemoration ceremonies and reburial where requested (#71-76, “Missing Children and Burial Information”). The TRC also has several sections for Churches, including requests for curriculum for all clergy and congregations and reconciliation projects. Scripture consistently reminds us of the judgement we bring upon ourselves when we say we care about others but do nothing to show this care.
We would be fools to think this particular incident on Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc territory will be an isolated example. Murray Sinclair, former commissioner of the TRC, has repeated what the TRC has already stated in its 2015 report: there are at least 6,000 confirmed deaths at Indian Residential Schools. And there are an untold and unknown number yet to be discovered in graves and unmarked burials and cemeteries at other residential schools across this country. It is just a matter of time before more heart-breaking evidence comes forward that will substantiate what Indigenous people have been trying to say for years: that they suffered horrors at these schools on a level that sometimes resulted in children dying in the very institutions that were meant to “save them” from their own people, language and culture. I grieve that it has taken this recent discovery to shock us out of our comfortable indifference.
Support and solidarity
Since the Kamloops discovery, well-meaning Christians have been asking “What can I do?” Many of us have rightly joined others in wearing orange, placing children’s shoes in public places and making public statements as a way to express support with the Indigenous community. These are good ways to show solidarity.
But let’s be clear: we must begin to listen intentionally to Indigenous people and take the stories that are told and entrusted to us seriously, even when they seem unbelievable, horrific and too far-fetched to possibly be true. This past week has demonstrated that the unbelievable, the horrific and the far-fetched did and do happen, even here in Canada. Let’s not add to the misery by refusing to listen. And, when we listen, let us learn to “weep with those who weep” and “mourn with those who mourn.” And, when the time for action comes, let us take the steps already laid out in the 94 Calls to Action. Then perhaps we can learn to live and love together in new ways that help bring the Kingdom of God a little closer in areas of this dark world that so desperately need it.
May God be glorified.
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