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Letter: ‘Time for reckoning and hard work’

‘Reparation, restitution, compensation, land back, Indigenous sovereignty, and our full support for rebuilding Indigenous communities and nations’ needed following the discovery of 215 children buried in an unmarked mass grave at Kamloops Indian Residential School

Trigger warning: This letter contains details about residential schools. Please take good care. 

Dear Editor: 

Many more know now what was suspected for so long. The remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the Residential School in Kamloops. 

Children lived in fear and misery, and when they starved, perished from preventable disease, or were murdered, their parents, their families were made victims too, not once, but over and over again, by the silence from the schools, by inquiries not taken seriously and ignored, by stories dismissed by Canada, its leaders and its citizens for far too long.

At least the loss of my family and that of many other Jewish families was acknowledged after the Second World War.

The ongoing hurt of dismissal for so long is unimaginable for me. My heart goes out to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 people in an embrace of caring and love.  

As a recent settler (since 1999), I find it also unimaginable to hear the words of many Canadian politicians and media hosts playing or pleading ignorance about the deaths at the Residential School in Kamloops. 

I am frankly disgusted, because what happened at the Residential Schools was well known and understood by the Canadian government, a colonial regime that has been in power uninterrupted since 1867, and is responsible for setting up the Indian Residential School system for the purpose of alienating Indigenous children from their families, communities and culture. 

Dr. Peter Bryce reported on the unusually high sickness and death rates at the schools as early as 1907. But those findings were ignored and again when he self-published his findings in 1922. 

Stories of Residential Schools have long been a part of Indigenous communities as parents, siblings, grandparents and nations wondered about the whereabouts of their missing children. Thousands of children didn’t return from the church or state-run schools. Or when children did, they were highly traumatized, and alienated from the families and communities. 

And because of the level of segregation between Indigenous communities and settlers/colonizers, something that continues to this day, settlers seldom hear the stories, or ignore them when they do.

And when the settler media or politicians talk about these stories, they’re talked about as if in the distant past. Well, the last Residential School closed in 1996 and most were in full operation in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. There are people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s who attended these institutions. And, today, more Indigenous children are placed away from their families than at the height of the Residential Schools. 

So why haven’t more settlers paid attention to the stories? It was not that the stories didn’t make it out at all. 

I learned about Canada and the effect of colonization by pure accident when I spend an afternoon with the late Nuxalk Chief Qwatsinas in Amsterdam in 1998 and more when I visited him in Bella Coola the same year. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, as it was a direct challenge to my worldview and the gratitude I was brought up with for Canadians as the liberators of the Netherlands from the Nazis. 

When I landed in 1999 to join my wife in Lantzville on Snaw-Wah-nas First Nations Territory, I had no idea about Residential Schools but that changed within six months of arrival. The workings of the schools, children dying, young kids buried in unmarked graves, survivors deeply traumatized: all were talked about in detail in a weekly program broadcast right here from Vancouver by CRFO radio.

Since then, the apology was issued in 2008, directly followed by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission until 2015. The commission travelled the country taking thousands of testimonies from residential school survivors at meetings open to the public. It was summarized in the commission’s final report, which included 94 recommendations (2015).

I accepted the stories, no doubt because many of my Jewish ancestors never made it back from the concentration camps and family members who survived left traumatized. Why would the stories from Chief Qwatsinas, and the program on CRFO radio, and later the testimonies documented by the TRC and its report, not be plausible? 

Or had I misunderstood the lack of attention from Canadians as disinterest? Maybe the stories had registered at an unconscious level for a long time. I don’t know, I didn’t grow up here. Maybe it’s because since the early 2000s more information is available owing to the publication of many books on the topic of colonization and the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. Maybe it needed something to bring it all home. 

And clearly that seem to have happened last week, Thursday, May 27, 2021, with the acknowledgment that, as was long known but not documented, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 nation had found 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School. 

The disbelief, and upset are widespread. In fact, this story made it all over the world to many countries, with pretty much all media outlets within those countries reporting on it. 

This is about a lot more than successive governments have tried to make us believe, so while government again grasps for symbolic gestures to get away with what cannot be gotten away with, we settlers, must realize that we have a role to play here. 

We must:

  • Give space and full support to Indigenous communities and peoples for healing.
  • Demand that funding and support is provided for Indigenous communities who want to locate and confirm suspected unmarked graves at Residential School sites across Canada. 
  • Support Indigenous communities in how communities want these investigation to be done, and if requested by Indigenous communities, to give full support, experience, expertise to help get the International Criminal Court involved, to work together with Indigenous communities to do the investigations. 
  • Educate ourselves where needed on the topics of Residential Schools, the effects of ongoing colonialism in Canada on Indigenous people.
  • Reconcile that our privilege has been made possible by the attempted erasure, attempted assimilation and deaths of Indigenous people. 

We must help to decolonize Canada, which also means that Canada must submit to justice for genocidal crimes committed. (Of which residential schools are just one) 

We must help make right what is wrong. Although that will never bring back loved ones, reparation, restitution, compensation, land back, Indigenous sovereignty, and our full support for rebuilding Indigenous communities and nations -  where that is needed - will go a very long way. 

This is watershed moment. It’s time for some hard reckoning and hard work. 

Anton van Walraven

The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support (1-866-925-4419). In B.C., a toll-free First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line (1-800-588-8717) is offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society. Both Crisis Lines are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Correction: an earlier version of this letter referred to the International Court of Justice, the letter writer in fact meant the International Criminal Court.