It has been a tremendously sad week as we continue to learn about the 215 children buried on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. One child is too many, and each child is connected in countless ways to so many others – families, friends, and other kin – in past, present, and future communities.
We tend to think of and study residential schools only as part of Canada’s history, and this is incredibly damaging because the impacts still remain. The last residential school to close in Canada did so in 1997, and we must remember that it is not just the survivors of residential schools who are still alive that show us the impacts of colonialism, but also the intergenerational trauma that continues to affect many families, communities, and individuals. Trauma that is often invisible to the rest of us, trauma that history, through the passing of time, allows the rest of us to obscure.
I am reminded by one of the most important exhibits I had seen in my adult life. It was one of those moments, I guess people call a paradigm shift, a complete separation from what I knew and felt before I stepped into the gallery. It was my first day working at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I walked into an artist tour by Peter Morin and Ayumi Goto for Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin: how do you carry the land? curated by Tarah Hogue, then Senior Curatorial Fellow of Indigenous Art at the VAG and now the Curator (Indigenous Art) at Remai Modern. Stopping at Aidagara (2017), Ayumi elucidated her experiences listening to residential school survivors at a Vancouver gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She said that despite the grief and sorrow of listening to these survivors’ stories, she was able to, at the end of the presentation, walk away. No matter how troubling these stories were, no matter how much empathy she felt toward the speakers, at the end, she was able to walk away. This ability to walk away, to separate oneself from the sometimes unfathomable trauma of others is, and will now always be, the clearest definition and understanding I have, and that I provide, for privilege. The ability, the choice, the opportunity to walk away.
Time and time again, I have thought about and struggled with my position and my role as a person of colour and as an ally to other racialized people. I have to acknowledge the limits of my understanding, honour the lived experiences of my peers, and continuously pull myself away from complicity. These are my responsibilities.
And what of the responsibilities of institutions? There is such a distortion in what is being espoused – that rosy promise of education as provided by schools, the commemoration of “representative” history in museums, libraries, and archives – that it doesn’t even shock anymore when it is also these exact institutions that perpetrate some of the most insidious forms of abuse, erasure, and exclusion. Specifically, for this terrible case, I reflect on “the record”: how it legitimizes a person, how it erases a person, how, without resistance, people get shuffled, sometimes namelessly, into the archives and collections of history and memory. There is not enough space within the number 215, 1, or any other digit to fully encompass the names, relationships, and experiences of each child. And as each new discovery and re-emergence of trauma deepen these wounds, at what point does our privilege of “walking away” run out?
My thoughts and sincerest condolences to the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation, the families, communities, and Nations of each child.
In addition to the linked sources above:
Honour the land you are on and learn more about the communities who have stewarded and who continue to steward these lands. https://www.native-land.ca/
An opportunity for those in the photography, film, and media fields. Response: Soft Action is open for applications and priority will be given to Indigenous participants, before any remaining spaces are open to non-Indigenous artists later in June. Please note that participants should be residing in BC. Full disclosure, I participated in the program last year and was amazed by the attention, care, and education given to us at each workshop, and the opportunities to learn Indigenous ways of knowing, learning, and making.