Statement by Christopher Derickson, y̓il̓mixʷm Westbank First Nation
Concerning the Unmarked Graves of Indigenous Children Discovered at the Kamloops Residential School in May 2021
Since the news broke about the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Residential School, I have been bombarded by texts and phone calls. Friends, colleagues, and political leaders have been asking, “How are you and how is your community doing?” “How can we support you?”
How am I? I’m angry, indignant, and perplexed as to why a country like ours, a modern-day free, liberal, and democratic society, tolerates the ongoing atrocious treatment of Indigenous peoples. I’m also surprised that this news came as a shock.
How is my community doing? We are heavy with grief, anger, rage, resentment, and indignation. We are trying to find a way to reconcile our existence as syilx people within a country that continues to ignore us. We are trying to find a way to heal, but the tether of unaddressed historic atrocities continues to haunt us.
So let me ask, how are you? How did you feel when you heard the news? What went through your mind? Do you, like our Prime Minister, believe that the discovery of 215 dead Indigenous children is “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s HISTORY?” Or have you finally come to realize that this is the PRESENT situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada? Are you finally waking up to realize that our free and democratic country still has racist legislation, policies, and political actors who continue to add sections to this “dark chapter,” unwilling to turn the page?
From what I can tell, Canadians are trying to find ways to move on from this dark chapter. I’ve been told that “how to be an Indigenous ally” is trending on the socials. But for how long? How long will this headline last? CBC’s The National did a segment on the ‘story’ and will likely do a few more. After all, they are our publicly-funded broadcaster and have a civic duty to do so. But, how long will this story last? How long will it take for the media and for Canadians to predictably move on to a new headline?
Residential schools are just one section of this chapter. Other sections we continue to write include the preventable deaths of Indigenous people in hospitals, child care, and RCMP custody. Let’s not forget the sections on the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, deplorable incarceration rates, unliveable conditions on reserves, underfunded educational systems, and the ongoing and continued alienation of our traditional lands. I could go on. But I think you get the point. Most media outlets and Canadians give these egregious stories a few seconds of attention and move on. Meanwhile, my people continue to live with the daily reality of ‘Canada’s Apartheid’ (https://www.lapsuslima.com/canadas-apartheid/). Go read it. This is not history. It is our collective present day reality.
We’ve known about the unreported graves. They’ve been documented in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s reports and Calls to Action. Maybe it’s time you read it (www.trc.ca). My people, the syilx/Okanagan people, have known about these things for years. They pervade and still haunt my community every day. I feel for the survivors. They heard about this the same way we all did. Through a press release. That moment, on May 28, 2021, will forever be etched in the collective memory of this country. I hope the survivors and their families find a way through this. I hope we, Canadians, find a way through this.
Or will we fall back into apathy and wait until the next news cycle and big headline to get another moment of public aghast hoping that one day things will change? I’m not an expert in social movements or mass societal change, but I’m pretty sure there is a better way.
So what can we do?
Let’s start with simply being human. Start with empathy. Take a moment to reflect on our present-day realities. Take a moment to remember the 215 children that never made it home. Allow yourself to feel what we feel. Anger, indignation, and a deep uncommunicable empty sadness.
Then, when you are ready, let’s turn the page. It’s time to heal. It’s time to change Canada.
This is our moment. It’s time to write a new chapter, nay a whole new volume entitled Truth and Reconciliation. This is our country. We as individual Canadians hold the collective pen and have at our door step the opportunity to write a new narrative for future Canadians and Indigenous peoples. We must also demand accountability and reparations. We must face the uncomfortable truths that have enabled centuries of genocide.
In this new chapter the humane treatment of Indigenous peoples is no longer a partisan issue. The mistreatment of Indigenous people is no longer an issue for debate. It is an issue we need to address. It’s time for governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals to act on the 94 Calls to Action from the TRC.
I believe that we can and must do better. We must build a better Canada, one that makes room for Indigenous peoples to BE Indigenous. We don’t want or need your permission to be Cree or syilx. You just need to finally acknowledge that we are here, we are not going to retreat into assimilation. We are going to take our rightful place in a diverse and rich Canada full of Indigenous languages, cultures, customs, traditions, and ways of being. A Canada that simply and honourably accepts that long before contact, we were here. We will always be here.
Christopher Derickson is currently serving as y̓il̓mixʷm for Westbank First Nation, one of the 17 communities affected by the confirmation of 215 children buried in unmarked graves.