I write this from a place of privilege – I’m on the outside looking in, I didn’t live through the horrors of assimilation and genocide. I write this with the privilege of education, social location, and safety that has not and is not afforded to the First Nations communities across our country. I write this from a place of privilege and from a place of honouring and remembering the 215 children found buried at Kamloops residential school.
As a social worker, I have known about the horrific details of residential schools through research but more importantly by listening to the stories of brave survivors. That’s right, from the survivors themselves – because those who survived them are still living today. We often refer to residential schools as ‘that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history’, thank you Prime Minister for this dismissive and reductive summary of how most Canadians view residential schools. The thing is, it’s not ‘history’ if the last residential school closed in 1996. That’s the year I graduated high school and I don’t refer to my high school years as ‘history’!
What we are witnessing is current trauma – a trauma born out of racism, an ethnic cleansing that we would typically call genocide. When there have been more than 150,000 children ripped from their families and over 4,100 child deaths that only ended less than 50 years ago – this isn’t something of the long past, but a current reality that we have to contend with and do something about.
As an anti-racist social worker and therapist, I know that it’s hard to challenge our privilege, the BLM movement is a clear example. It’s a paradox to hold two truths at the same time – that we hold privilege and that children have died due to this privilege. We want to argue that we aren’t responsible for those things. How could we be responsible, we weren’t making the decisions. We rationalize that this was in the past and we can’t change the past – we say we’re sad and horrified and move on with our day.
The simple fact that we can move on with our day shows our privilege. The simple fact that this news doesn’t trigger your trauma and brings you to your knees with grief, pain, and devastation shows your privilege. And that’s ok. I share that privilege with you. The news doesn’t trigger my trauma and I have the ability to move on with my day with some heavy heartedness. But I can move on with my day. For millions of people in our country, this isn’t the case.
But what can we do, you might ask. It’s already been done and now we need to ‘move forward’ you might say.
Here’s how I challenge my privilege:
#1 By using the correct language
The words we use create our reality – all you have to do is read a news headline to know that the use of words is powerful. The children in residential schools didn’t end up there by accident – they were taken from their families and communities with the explicit purpose to ‘whiten’ them. Government policy outlines the goals of assimilation which is clear evidence that residential schools were a primary tool to achieve their goals. This was done on purpose! Let’s stop excusing what happened and start speaking about it truthfully.
The 4,100 children’s bodies that have been found in mass burial sites are a consequence of racist assimilation practices. Again, this isn’t accidental but a consequence of power and institutional racism. This is genocide, this is murder.
#2 By listening with openness
I listen to the stories of those who have the power to speak about it – the First Nations peoples. In the same way that we don’t give more credit to the German’s account of the Holocaust – no we listen, honour, and believe the accounts of the survivors. I challenge myself to do the same, to listen and believe the horrific accounts of the survivors despite how uncomfortable it might make me. My discomfort doesn’t even come close to measuring up to the pain, torture, and suffering of the survivors. To honour them, I listen.
#3 By allowing space for the rumble
I make space for anger, confusion, and guilt. I lean into the discomfort of knowing that my privilege comes at the cost of someone else’s suffering. I rumble with this all the time – I don’t look away from it, I don’t excuse it and I don’t minimize it. I hold two truths – guilt and anger. This is what feeds my advocate voice and allows me to sit in the pain of survivors. It’s really uncomfortable and it should be! But the thing to remember is that no one has died from feeling uncomfortable with their privilege.
I write all of this from my place of privilege and I’m angry. I’m heartbroken and devastated by the pain and suffering. I’m also grateful that the bodies of these children have been found – that it might bring some answers to the families who have accepted the missing of their family members.
My hope is that instead of dismissing, minimizing, and excusing away our ‘history’ that we can step into compassion and empathy. Let compassion lead the way to listen to Indigenous survivors and communities, to hear their stories, to hold space for their pain, and to support them in leading the way towards retribution and healing.