This story contains content about residential schools that may be triggering. Resources are listed at the bottom of the story for those who need them.
On Monday, a sombre crowd dressed in orange gathered on lək̓ʷəŋən traditional territory outside of the M’Akola Housing Building in Langford’s downtown core. Friends, family and neighbours formed a circle and held a ceremony to honour the memory of residential school victims and survivors — particularly the 215 children whose remains were recently found at a residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
A tree, not far from the crowd, stood as a memorial. Children’s shoes lay at its roots and a sign was taped on the trunk. Encircled in orange hearts on the sign were the words, “In memory of the lost and newly found children. Not forgotten, always loved.”
Those in the ceremony took time to acknowledge and share the collective grief Indigenous communities have been left with as a product of Canada’s residential school system and continuous systemic racism. As a form of healing, the group sang, drummed and shared valuable words with each other.
Marlene Clifton, a Gitxsan woman, led the ceremony with song and drumming and invited others to share their songs as well.
People held hands, hugged and periodically wiped away tears while children at the ceremony danced and drummed along.
There was a sombre feeling cast upon the circle and the expressed sorrow for the children who died was juxtaposed by lightness embodied in the children attending the ceremony. Each and every child there was welcomed into the circle with warm smiles and embraces. Some had their own drums while other children danced joyfully in the centre of the circle.
“They just know what to do,” says Audrey Lundquist, a Gitxsan woman who attended the ceremony. “They’re so young and they know.”
Lundquist is Clifton’s sister and they were also joined by Clifton’s husband, Charles, and daughter, Julia. The family recently moved to the community and, with permission, shared songs from their Nation.
Clifton addressed the crowd and expressed the pain, grief and sorrow that has accompanied not just recent news, but centuries of injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people in Canada. She says the truth needs to be shared and heard in order to pave a path for reconciliation.
‘You need truth’
“You need truth,” she says. “You need to share the truth.”
While Clifton acknowledges that school curriculums are changing, she says it’s too slow. She says children need to learn what really happened in a way that isn’t watered down or sugar-coated. She says people need to learn in order to show kindness to one another and move forward.
“I really believe that we’re here, you’re here, let’s try and figure out a common ground for everybody and care about other people,” Clifton says.
Speaking up and teaching others about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada is crucial to destigmatizing mental health struggles as well, Lundquist says.
“So many of our people don’t look for help because of the stigma of mental health,” Lundquist says. “And intergenerational trauma, it’s just as painful as if it happened to us and it happens to us in different ways. We have to do the best we can to de-stigmatize mental health.”
Bevin Avery, who helped plan the ceremony, also took time to speak. She says the children who were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and those at other residential school sites need to be honoured.
After news broke about the children who were found in Kamloops, Avery says she’s noticed a lot of positive action and support from friends and allies. She says she’s seen people expressing that “it’s about time” things change and says it’s heartwarming to see a desire to help.
“There’s something about this find in particular that’s opened the hearts of our non-Indigenous neighbours, families and friends” she says. “And I think we can bring them to our hearts, thank them and ask them to speak up for us because we shouldn’t have to do it all.
Avery’s advice to non-Indigenous folks is simple.
“Listen more than [you] speak,” Avery says.
The West Shore shows its support
Since the discovery was made in Kamloops, institutions and organizations across Canada have taken steps to show support and mourn alongside Indigenous communities, though some question why it took so long to take action.
On the West Shore, the City of Colwood and Town of View Royal announced on Facebook that flags would fly at half-mast for 215 hours to honour and mourn the 215 children who were found. The City of Langford and Pacific Football Club shared similar statements on Instagram stories.
The Sooke School District announced that it would spend 215 hours acknowledging and recognizing the tragedy of residential schools and recent discovery. The district came up with opportunities for students and staff to connect and reflect. Students will discuss residential schools, write notes to the Tk’emllúps te Secwépemc First Nation and more. Flags at SD62 schools and sites will remain at half-mast for a total of 215 hours and students and staff are encouraged to wear orange throughout the week until Tuesday, June 8. On June 8, students will hear a poem and words from Elder Shirley Alphonse of Cowichan Tribes.
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419.
Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society aims to provide a “non-judgmental approach to listening and problem solving.” The crisis line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-588-8717 or go to kuu-uscrisisline.com. KUU-US means “people” in Nuu-chah-nulth.
The author of this story, Shalu Mehta, is a settler immigrant with familial roots in India. The Discourse is committed to trauma-informed ethical reporting, which involves taking time and care, self-location, transparency and safety care plans for those who come forward with stories to share. The Discourse is indebted to our sister organization, IndigiNews, for showing us the way in this work.