“They Went To School, But Never Came Home”

Local Indigenous people lead the way in paying tribute to the 215 child victims of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Local Indigenous Elder, Nina De Shane, brought her grandchildren to the Baden, grassroots memorial for children who died in the residential school system. After an intimate ceremony of mourning, the three sang a traditional lullaby

Local Indigenous Elder, Nina De Shane, brought her grandchildren to the Baden, grassroots memorial for children who died in the residential school system. After an intimate ceremony of mourning, the three sang a traditional lullaby

On May 27, a chilling announcement by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc council in Kamloops, B.C. caused shock and outrage as Canadians faced the reality of one of the country’s darkest tragedies, the Residential School System.

“This past weekend, with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light – the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” it said in a press release.

People across Canada, including in Wilmot, sought ways to express their grief. Memorials soon started to appear in the township.

Dozens of children’s shoes were placed in front of the Wilmot Family Resource Centre on May 31. The same day in Baden, a tiny pair of children’s moccasins was left on the empty plinth outside the Township of Wilmot’s administration building where the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald once stood.

On June 1, Indigenous Elder Nina De Shane, who is Haudenosaunee and works at the Resource Centre, held an intimate mourning ceremony at the Baden shrine. She laid a blanket on the plinth before placing gifts for the dead children, and then added two pairs of small moccasins to the pair that was left the day before.

“We’re honouring them with our songs, with our memories, with our sacred medicines. We placed them on the earth, which is our tradition,” she said.

A residential school survivor decided not to join the ceremony because she couldn’t stop crying, De Shane added.

She was accompanied by her grandchildren, Dante and Nina, as they sang a lullaby to the Kamloops victims. They hugged and comforted each other afterwards.

De Shane left her favourite moccasins on the blanket at the end of the ceremony. She said they were for a grandmother to wear while carrying her own grandchildren.

“We’re hoping that the children hear us and know that they’re loved, that they were always loved, and that we’re so sorry that it’s taken all this time to find them.”

Against the will of their families, Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, which could be hundreds of miles from their communities. When the summer break came, some children didn’t return.

“They went to school, but never came home,” said De Shane.

“People told us for years that their children were missing, but we couldn’t find them. The churches, or whatever school it was, always said the children ran away. We can see that these 215 children did not run away.”

She believes that while the government’s role in the Residential School System has been condemned, churches have been “let off the hook.”

“(These) were schools that were governed by churches with the support of the government, and these are the same churches who managed to keep meticulous records of births, deaths, marriages in Europe for hundreds of years. How is it possible that hundreds of children would just be misplaced or vanish, that nobody could tell anybody what happened to them?”

The grounds of all former residential schools should be searched for similar unmarked burial sites, said De Shane.

More items were added to the Baden memorial on June 2, when people brought shoes and toys, as well as signs, letters and coins. Dozens of shoes were arranged to form the number 215.

Wellesley resident Pandora Wilhelm, a Métis woman, was one of the people who came to pay tribute by adding shoes to the display. She was involved in the process when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission visited Toronto in 2012 to document survivors’ stories, so the Kamloops discovery didn’t come as a surprise.

There was plenty of speculation about unmarked burial sites at residential schools. During survivors’ testimony at the Commission’s hearings, witnesses spoke of seeing a friend one day and them being gone the next.

“Everybody I’d spoken to, they were very adamant that there were multiple sites on the grounds of the residential schools,” she said. “The individuals that were there from the government, they didn’t really answer the questions when the victims would ask that. So, it was something that I’ve been hearing about since I first got involved, and I wasn’t surprised that they found one.”

Wilhelm felt it was apt to use the area around the Macdonald statue’s plinth for a residential school victims memorial.

“It wasn’t a very pleasant time when everyone was advocating to have the statue taken down,” she said. “There was a lot of disrespect and a lot of ignorance, that we should be just getting over it. When I first saw the statue, my initial thought was (about) residential schools. So, once I decided that I was going to take shoes, that’s why I wanted to use that space.”

While Wilhelm is glad that Canadians are now believing reports about the horrors of the Residential School System, she’s concerned attention will drift away once the news cycle changes. She wants non-Indigenous people to contact their elected leaders to advocate for change.

“At the end of the day, the shoes are great, we’re getting attention, and we’re starting conversations. Take your outrage, take your frustration and your sadness, and do something about it. Help move things forward.”

The Township has hired Ottawa-based consultancy First Peoples Group to help determine what comes next for the Prime Ministers Path project, which is meant to grow to 22 statues. The company’s president and senior partner Guy Freedman thinks the Kamloops news has changed the way Canadians reflect on their country’s past.

“We are sensing a shift amongst Canadians regarding the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools,” he said. “This includes the need for more education for Canadians that there were many people, not just leaders, who were complicit in the establishment and operation of these schools, including the churches.”

First Peoples Group recently launched a Community Voices Forum to gather comments from residents of Wilmot, Waterloo Region and members of neighbouring First Nations. It runs to June 18.

“We’re inviting people who may have submitted their responses already, but have had a shift in perspectives in light of the news from this weekend, to please revisit the forum and share any new thoughts that may have arisen this week.”

Kamloops Indian Residential School (formerly known as Kamloops Industrial School) was the largest in Canada. It opened in 1890, when Macdonald was prime minister, and shut down in 1978, when Pierre Trudeau held power. Gordon Residential School in Saskatoon was the country’s last, closing in 1996 during Jean Chrétien’s government.