The small shoes that lined the steps outside New Westminster City Hall in May said everything that words couldn’t.
They spoke of all the children who never returned home after heading off to Kamloops Indian Residential School. The memorial – and others like it from coast to coast – became a national symbol of mourning for a past, and a present, that Canada has yet to reconcile.
Reconciliation became a major headline in New Westminster in 2021.
The story that galvanized the nation was the discovery of 215 children, found buried on the site of the former residential “school” after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc worked with a ground-penetrating radar specialist in a search for answers about what had happened at the institution that was once the largest residential school in Canada. It operated between 1890 and 1978.
The story, which became international news in May, wasn’t a new one for Indigenous people. It had long been known to survivors and their families, who have lived with the effects of the residential school experience for generations.
But it brought the discussion to the forefront once again – here and across the country.
In New Westminster, the Spirit of the Children Society placed teddy bears at Hyack Square to honour the 215 young lives, and society members invited the community to join them in a ceremony at city hall.
Similar ceremonies took place across the country. Schools, city halls and other institutions lowered their flags to half-mast. And, everywhere, a recognition grew that this was a moment of reckoning.
It was the first of what would be a series of grim discoveries across the country, as hundreds more graves were found at other residential school sites. As of mid-December, searches at seven former residential schools in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia had turned up nearly 1,400 suspected graves – on top of the more than 6,000 deaths already documented by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Reconciliation in the news
It’s no surprise that reconciliation has been a dominant narrative in New Westminster this year.
It began in April, with the New Westminster school board’s historic vote to change the name of Richard McBride Elementary School to Skwo:wech – the Halq’eméylem word for “sturgeon.”
Another major rnaming came in June, when the City of New Westminster announced that the name of the new aquatic and community centre will be təməsew̓txʷ – from the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ words for “Sea Otter House.”
Locally, the anger and pain surrounding the residential school reality came into harsh light in July, when a Roman Catholic Church was hit with graffiti and splattered paint.
St. Peter’s Church on Royal Avenue was targeted with orange spray paint that included the words “Baby killers,” “killers” and “You’re guilty.” The church was founded in 1860 by Father Leon Fouquet of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate – a religious order that operated 48 residential schools in Canada, including Kamloops.
It was the only New Westminster incident reported amidst a spate of vandalism and fires at churches and church properties in B.C.
Finding hope, taking action
Alongside the grief and the anger, there also came tangible signs of change and hope.
Through the year, Indigenous artists found another way to give voice to the Indigenous experience: through art.
The Arts Council of New Westminster hosted a summer series called Expressions of Reclamation, curated by guest curator S^yowah. It featured emerging Indigenous artists offering performances, talks, demonstrations and activities showcasing their own journeys to reclaim their identity through art.
And there was Qayqayt artist Johnny Bandura, nephew of Chief Rhonda Larrabee, who created a large-scale work called The 215, envisioning what the future of each of those children could have been had they survived. It was shown at the New Westminster Museum in November and December.
On the political front, New Westminster city council approved two separate housing projects designed to support Indigenous community members: a 96-unit Sixth Street project by the Aboriginal Trust Society, which gained approval in May; and a 58-unit Fenton Street project in Queensborough that was just approved in December.
Reconciliation also gained a new, tangible expression in the form of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, declared by the federal government for Sept. 30. It was marked by local schools with Orange Shirt Week, including a variety of activities designed to educate students about the residential school experience and related issues. The City of New Westminster formally recognized the day and lit the Anvil Centre in orange in tribute.
The Spirit of the Children Society invited the community to take part in a ceremony that day, honouring residential school survivors and those who didn’t come home.
But, as Larrabee reminded Record readers in a column submitted for the occasion, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is just the beginning of the conversation.
“The Truth is being told, and people across Canada are listening,” she wrote. “Keep the conversation alive.”
The small shoes are no longer on the steps at city hall. But the children’s stories demand to be told. And the long journey of reconciliation will continue into 2022 – and far beyond.
– with files from Theresa McManus and Stefan Labbé
WHAT CAN I DO?
Some ideas for those non-Indigenous people wondering how to take action in the wake of the residential school discoveries.
- If you’re a parent, talk over the issue with your children. They are already learning about residential schools in school; educate yourself and keep the discussion open. Not sure where to start? Try this list of books for all ages, from children’s stories to non-fiction for adults, from the Legacy of Hope Foundation.
- Visit the Legacy of Hope Foundation website for more information about residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the impacts of inter-generational trauma. Donations are also accepted at the site.
- Familiarize yourself with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, including the Calls to Action it issued in 2015.
- Urge the federal government to provide funding so that the search for truth about residential school deaths can be conducted at all former school sites across Canada. Locally, New Westminster residents can contact their MP, Peter Julian.
IF YOU NEED HELP
Reconciliation Canada offers a list of places to turn for those residential school survivors and others for whom the year’s news has caused trauma. Among them:
KUU-US Crisis Line Society
The KUU-US Crisis Line Society is a 24-hour provincial Aboriginal crisis line.
Phone: Adult Crisis Line 250-723-4050
Youth Crisis Line: 250-723-2040
Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS)
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society has a 24-hour crisis line.