Canadians, myself included, like to believe we are better people than Americans (black slavery and systematic racism), Germans (Jewish holocaust) or the Chinese (forced re-education camps for Uyghurs Muslims), but regretfully, we have never truly atoned for past and present sins against our First Nations peoples.
What happened in our residential schools was genocide, engineered by the Canadian government and cruelly dispatched by the most prominent churches of the day. It makes my stomach sick and my shame great to think that our nation builders and church leaders were responsible for atrocities against aboriginal children and that our forefathers were complicit.
Of course, history is laden with holocausts. My Norse and Swedish forefathers were beastly in their forays to rape and pillage other cultures. The same can be said for the Ottomans and the Catholic Crusaders in the Middle East and on the Steppes. France, Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands as they conquered and exploited ancient civilizations, killed and enslaved the peoples of Africa, China, India, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean Islands and the Americas.
The country of Germany has done what few have. They don’t whitewash history, nor make excuses for their past holocaust. All children learn in school about the extermination of six million Jews and their shared German ‘shame’. They are taught how even German children, with mental defects or physical handicaps, were taken away from their parents to institutions and used as experimental material.
Like our residential schools, many little German souls ended up as trash in mass graves. German tour guides and powerful memorials remind visitors of the importance of never forgetting evils of the past, lest they be repeated.
Like Germany, we must quit white-washing Canada’s history and admit our collective sin. It starts with recovering every lost child in residential school mass and/or unmarked graves and providing them with proper burials.
For me, one of the most powerful symbols of the Jewish holocaust was a memorial of 60 pairs of cast iron shoes, in 1940’s style, lining the banks of the Danube River in the heart of Budapest, Hungary. Children’s shoes are being used today to symbolize Canada’s 215 little lost souls.
Multi-generational tragedies and social problems amongst our First Nations can be directly connected to residential schools and their mandate to make Aboriginals ‘white’ and ‘Christian’. In the inhumane process, many were sexually abused and died horrible deaths away from their loving families. Those who returned were broken, insecure and untethered from their traditions and had next to nothing to offer to their offspring and future generations.
It’s hard for us, the privileged white majority, to empathize with others. We have never, and likely will never, experience what our aboriginal peoples have gone through since the days of colonialism.
But we can viscerally imagine the rage we would feel if today’s government ripped our little children away from us, turned them over to Buddhist monks and forced them to learn Chinese with the express intent to kill the English language and Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Empathy, the most valued virtue, is also the hardest to feel because we have to set aside feelings of superiority and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
To be a truly great nation, we must humble ourselves and feel remorse for our ugly past.
If any good can come from the discovery of these 215 little lost souls, and thousands more to uncover, may it be empathy amongst the white population, and decisive action from all levels of government on the 94 Truth & Reconciliation Commission recommendations. Only then, true healing of our nation can progress.