COCHRANE— A memorial has been created in Cochrane's Historic Downtown honouring the 215 children whose remains were found at a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School.
The memorial is located at the gazebo in the historic downtown and 215 shoes are being collected to honour the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Residential School. The memorial was installed on Wednesday (June 2) and will remain in place for 215 hours until Friday (June 11) around 5 p.m.
Stoney elders performed a ceremony at the memorial to honour the children and the National Day of Prayer Sunday (June 6).
Town of Cochrane Equity and Inclusion Committee Indigenous Advisor Gloria Snow was on hand for the ceremony marking the observance of the 215 students found in the mass grave in Kamloops. She noted three memorials have also been installed in Stoney Nakoda First Nation.
“It’s a collective gasp across the country because it’s actual proof that these atrocities were committed,” Snow said. “[The proof] it’s in the bones and it’s in the blood memories. You can’t deny it.”
The remains of what are believed to be 215 children were located at the former Residential School in Kamloops after the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation used ground-penetrating radar about a week ago.
Under Residential Schools for more than a century, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly sent to government-funded, church-operated schools, where many suffered abuse and even death.
The Catholic Church operated the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1890 to 1969. The Catholic Church ran the majority of Residential Schools in Canada, while others were run by the Anglican and United Churches of Canada. The Catholic Church as a whole has never issued a formal apology for its role in Residential Schools.
Snow said Residential School survivors from Stoney Nakoda First Nation were on hand at the memorialization event in Cochrane to provide a commemorative smudge and prayer.
“I’m so happy that this type of acknowledgement, this awareness and the education process that goes with this can be shared,” Snow said.
The memorial is a sobering symbol, she said, because the enormous number of shoes placed at the gazebo gives people pause and time to acknowledge the trauma and pain inflicted by Residential Schools.
It can be a revelation for some to learn that there are three Residential School sites in Stoney Nakoda, she said, and she hopes to see more advocacy, education and work completed in terms of Reconciliation.
“I think there is a glaring ignorance that this has been a part of our Canadian historical experience. This is our shared history. It’s a painful one. It’s a trauma-filled one. It’s one of despair,” Snow said. “As children, we suffered. As children, we had no recourse. As parents and families, we also had no recourse.”
Colonial systems, including the church and state, imposed Residential Schools on Indigenous people, Snow said, and this experience needs to be included in the historical record of Canada.
“When we look at that in terms of the curriculum and grade school and even into secondary and high school and into post-secondary a lot of people have shared with me they never learned this unless they have taken a university-level first-year Indigenous studies course,” Snow said. “That needs to change.”
It can be challenging and painful speaking to the traumatic legacy of Residential Schools because many families are survivors of the system. Many families saw children forcibly separated from their families and communities and taken to Residential Schools for more than a decade.
“These children were essentially in governmental care, in church care so how is it that there is no record of them. That there is no proper burial or memorialization of them,” Snow said. “I think a lot of the survivors, the families themselves have known about these stories and now they have a voice to speak to that story.”
It can be difficult to process these experiences, she said, but there is a need for people to understand and hear Indigenous people’s pain and explore ways to help.
The Cochrane memorial has been especially inspiring because it serves as a call for awareness and advocacy creating something positive out of a heartbreaking loss.
The key steps moving forward from the tragedy will be taking time to listen and give survivors a chance to tell their stories, Snow said.
“The narrative is about that person and their pain. That family and their pain. That Nation and that community and their pain. Engage and understand and work with Stoney Nakoda— That’s one way you can advocate,” Snow said.
The first step is taking time to build trust with Nation members who have experienced years of colonial pain. It is a painful but necessary process learning these stories as part of Reconciliation, Snow said.
Reconciliation serves as an opportunity to ensure Indigenous cultures, languages and Nations can heal and thrive. Moving forward Snow hopes to see allies endorse and advocate for Indigenous issues and events as an important act of Reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the Residential School system and its legacy detailed in its nearly 4,000-page report the harsh mistreatment, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse, inflicted on First Nations, Métis and Inuit children that were forced to attend the schools away from their families and communities. Ongoing research by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation shows at least 4,100 died in the schools amid neglect.
After seeing memorials created in other towns and sites honouring the children found in Kamloops, Cochranite Christine Bashow was inspired to help create a memorial in Cochrane.
The original setup had about 30 pairs of shoes, but these numbers quickly increased as families visited the site to pay their respects and leave shoes in memory of the 215 children found at the Kamloops Residential School.
“It was a central spot that is visible and allows people to pay their respects and honour the children,” Bashow said. “It was really incredible watching how fast it filled up. Every day we went there were more and more shoes.”
The memorial serves as a visual that can help make the experience of Residential Schools a little more real for those who walk by.
“These are 215 children who are victims. We can reflect on that and all of the history,” Bashow said.
The memorial has sparked discussions in the community, Bashow said, emphasizing the need for education and compassion when talking about the history of Residential Schools in Canada.
Bashow said she did not learn much about Residential Schools growing up, and has made an active choice to educate herself and learn more about the experience.
The Kamloops Residential School has only further pushed the pressing need to open up conversations and learn about a painful piece of Canada’s history.
The schools left wounds in Indigenous families through the experience of inter-generational trauma, and the lasting impacts of Residential Schools linger to this day.
Several families have dropped off shoes at the memorial and it has been inspiring to see parents and children unpack and raise awareness about the experience of Residential Schools.
Education and awareness are key actions when practicing Reconciliation, Bashow said, and including youth is a critical part of the conversation.
Cochranite Kailey Mitchell helped Bashow install the memorial in the downtown gazebo.
It has been an emotional experience seeing the number of shoes at the memorial grow from the initial 30 shoes that were first dropped off. She described it as an overwhelming experience because the shoes serve as a visual signifier of the children who were lost while in Residential Schools.
“I think everybody has been hit and affected in different ways with the news of the Kamloops Residential School and I feel like it was a huge eye-opener for a lot of people,” Mitchell said. “I love being Canadian, but I think it’s a shameful part of our past that I think a lot of people don’t recognize or acknowledge. It’s an opportunity to educate people in our community about the Indigenous people that are in our community— When you talk to people and you start to hear some of the stories there’s a good chance that there are a lot of other children buried across the entire country.”
Learning the history of colonialism in Canada and respecting its impact to this day is a key piece of Reconciliation. Mitchell said everyone has a role to play and she hopes people are willing to open their eyes and learn more.
“I’m still learning a lot … It’s a constant process,” Mitchell said.
For those effected by the recent discovery in Kamloops the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 1-866-925-4419.
— With files from The Canadian Press