How to take the next step on your journey of decolonization
Like many parents, my partner Levi and I were extremely saddened to hear the number of children whose bodies have been recovered by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation, then those by the Cowessess First Nation, then those by the ʔaq̓ am community in the Ktunaxa Nation, then those by the Penelakut Tribe…
It has been tough announcement after tough announcement over the last few months. Then there are at least 133 more Indian Residential School System (IRSS) sites to investigate so what we have experienced so far is only a fraction of them. More sadness and discomfort will come—perhaps, so too, will feelings of rage, betrayal or shame, depending on how your family has been impacted or how aware you were previously.
Levi is a member of the Gitga’at First Nation through his grandmother on his father’s side, with strong family connections to the Lamalchi People of the Gulf Islands. His nana and papa on his mother’s side are of Scottish and English ancestry. My ancestry includes Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Swedish and English family members.
Like many parents, we have had to explain to our five-year-old why we have been wearing orange shirts so often in the past few months, why she can’t take a teddy bear home from the hundreds on the stairs at the BC provincial legislature, why there are shoes just her size underneath the totem pole at her new school where she will be attending kindergarten next year.
With each announcement, we can’t help but put ourselves in the shoes of those families who lost their children forever. Each time, we try to avoid imagining the fear of imminently losing our child to a lifetime of abuse, shame, family and cultural disconnection, PTSD, addiction, substance abuse, poverty, incarceration—or death. We have also had to explain to our daughter why we have become extra sad, exhausted, irritable and/or overbearingly affectionate lately.
With each announcement, we remember that without the tireless resistance, ingenuity and determination of her ancestors and some key non-Indigenous allies, the Indian Residential School System would still be in place. While we are fostering her excited anticipation of getting ready to go to “big kid school,” we can’t stop thinking that if she had been born one generation ago, we could have instead been trying to figure out how to tell her that she will need to “be brave” to survive the horror to come.
Unlike some parents, we knew all too well how many thousands of children are waiting to be recovered and remembered by Canadians, because the threat of the Indian Residential School System has shaped the decisions and ongoing life circumstances of Levi’s family for generations. We have had the privilege to listen to Elders, participate in anti-racism workshops, take Indigenous history courses at university and received guidance from Indigenous educators and leaders who have been trying to change the status quo for decades.
In 2015, we had the honour of reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s findings, witnessing the TRC exhibit and attending workshops with survivors. We invite you to join us in taking action to cope with this historical and contemporary reality. We would like to offer ideas to support you in deciding what might be the best direction for you and your family to head in your learning and how to take the next steps in your journeys of decolonization and empowerment.
We were not shocked, as many have been. However, we still share the pain that many parents feel, and will continue to feel as each of the IRSS sites are searched and more children are recovered. It is critical that we do not become desensitized to this horror, and instead come up with ways to honour each child, each family, each community that is impacted directly, so they are not left alone in their pain. When we share the pain, we can also share in the healing, and share in the determination to make sure future children do not suffer in this way.
There are currently more Indigenous children in foster care than there ever were at one time in the IRSS system. This reality is one of the many intergenerational impacts and direct consequences of this genocidal system. These were not schools. They were re-education prisons, and the lessons they taught so cruelly were how not to parent, how not to learn, how not to be a community member, how not to be a leader, all so that Indigenous people could be cleared from their land and disconnected from the resources Canadians hunger for. Despite this, so many Indigenous families have survived and are working hard to heal, grow, learn, lead and be better parents for their children’s children.
Across the land and across cultural backgrounds, I think all parents do share the pain and the imperative to do something to help our children build a community where the next generation will be protected from systemic racism, colonial violence and the shameful agony of being complicit in oppression. In preparation for Orange Shirt Day on September 30, please consider how you and your family will continue to learn about the historical realities of Canada and unpack racist concepts so that you are better prepared to answer your children’s questions and guide their learning.
Levi’s advice on this journey is to:
Be direct; don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.
This doesn’t mean we have to beat children over the head with traumatic details. Answer children’s questions honestly, even if or especially when you don’t know the answer. Our default answer is, “That is an important observation. I don’t know enough about it, so let’s find out together.”
When bringing up topics in decolonization or anti-racism, choose your moment.
Keep in mind the emotional states of everyone involved, recognizing that this work takes energy, tact, care and compassion. In our family, for example, we do not talk about residential schools after the sun has set.
Story is a great place to start with kids; they are an easy access point for all of us.
A lot of European folklore tackles a lot of awful realities, especially when we read the Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers Grimm originals instead of relying on the sanitized Disney versions. For example, “Hansel and Gretel” teaches children that taking candy from strangers may lead to abduction and death. These stories aimed at kids didn’t shy away from heavy topics, but use metaphor to teach while protecting innocence; they are instructive and help prepare children for situations and dilemmas they may find themselves in. They also introduce children to character traits that enable all of us to build empathy, resilience and confidence in our ability to overcome difficulty and solve problems.
In much the same way, books and poems from Indigenous authors can help children learn about the history and consequences of residential schools, serving as a starting point for important family discussions. We like to read age-appropriate selections from My name is Sapeetza by Shirley Sterling as an introduction to residential schools for kindergarten to grade 12. Comparing the poems “I lost my talk” by Rita Joe and “I’m finding my talk” by Rebecca Thomas is a good way to start understanding the trauma, goals and long-term impacts of the IRS System without going too deep into nightmarish details with younger children.
It is important to recognize that the children in our lives are being exposed to a lot of different messaging about the IRS system, Indigenous/neocolonial conflicts, systemic racism and personal prejudice right now through different forms of media. When our daughter is exposed to derogatory opinions, words or perspectives, we do not let these pass. We search for respectful ways to articulate or discuss challenging situations. I call this “interrogating our language.” It is important to notice, reflect upon and consciously choose the words you use. For example, many media articles continue to capitalize all other ethnicities of people except for Indigenous people, and some still dehumanize First Nations, Metis or Inuit people by lumping distinct nations together as “Aboriginals.” The way we talk about people is as important as learning the true history, intergenerational impacts, and consequences of colonialism.
Be kind, gentle and generous with yourself and others in this journey.
Find out which First Nations peoples have rights and responsibilities in the particular territory you live, work and learn in using the First Peoples Map of BC at maps.fpcc.ca. Territories often overlap, so you may then want to check out the websites of each First Nation in your area, many of which are also linked on native-land.ca. Once you know how to spell a Nation’s name in their own language, you can learn how to pronounce their Nation’s name, alphabet, place names etc by looking up many languages on firstvoices.com.
Check with your local bookstore for local Indigenous authors; these are helpful to get an understanding of the diversity of Indigenous experiences and perspectives. Some of our favourite books are The Terror of the Coast by Chris Arnett, Conversations with Canadians by Lee Maracle, the Trickster series by Eden Robinson, The Truth about Stories and The Inconvenient Indian or really anything by Thomas King.
TRC Calls to Action: pick an action based on your sector (Education, Business, Sports, Media, Child Welfare, Justice, etc). Reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report from trc.ca will make your action more effective and informed. Please read this instead of asking survivors to recount their traumatic experiences or speak in languages they have been stripped of—unless of course they offer to.
MMIWG: read the report from the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. Write a letter in support of the Calls for Justice to your MLA, MP, local police, newspaper or employer. You can display a red dress, wear a red dress pin or join the Moosehide campaign to show your support for survivors of violence. Feb 14 is the annual Women’s Memorial March.
Online Activism: Follow Idle No More—Official on Facebook or Jared Qwustenuxun Williams—become a patron! Join a group such as Moms Against Racism Canada to discuss how to become anti-racist, book a workshop or get more culturally diverse books into homes and classrooms. Access to Media Education Society also has curricular resources and shares young Indigenous filmmakers’ work, such as “Acknowledging Our Shared Territory” and “Wisdom Harvest.”
Orange Shirt Day: Since 2013, September 30th is an annual day to reaffirm that “Every Child Matters—including those like Orange Shirt Society founder Phyllis Webstad, who were made to feel worthless through the IRSS. Phyllis has published “The Orange Shirt Story” for children. Please make sure you avoid non-Indigenous online retailers who have illegally copied and stolen (culturally appropriated) the design from orangeshirtday.org, as the proceeds are needed to support survivors. You can wear your orange shirt any day to honour survivors and express compassion for their families, which is especially helpful when announcements are made that more children have been recovered.
Donate to support the Indian Residential School Survivors Society: irsss.ca. If you are a survivor or intergenerational survivor in crisis, you can call 1-800-721-0066 for support.