How to grieve 215 children

By giving them justice

Welcome to At The End Of the Day. I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter for a people-first perspective on the news. Subscribe and support via Patreon.

Content warning: Today I’m writing about grief and residential schools

Last week, Canada woke up to the news from Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation that the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered at Kamloops residential school. 

I’m no expert in how to handle this news. I’m just going to be honest about that. Like you, I’m fumbling and grieving.

At dinner one night this week, I asked my children what they knew about residential schools. My older child talked about Chanie Wenjack. My younger one, who is seven, remembered a story about an orange shirt.

My seven-year-old was sensing I was going to say something very serious. When I told them that the graves of hundreds of children had been found, my daughter instantly clapped her hands to her ears. 

“You don’t want me to talk about this?” I asked gently.

She vigorously shook her head.

“Why not?”

“It’s too sad.”

Okay. She’s not wrong. It is extremely sad. I left it alone for a few minutes.

Then I told them that I’d heard people talking about leaving teddy bears on their porches to remember the children. 

I asked if she would like to put a teddy on our porch, too?

She happily agreed. I didn’t tell her further details about Kamloops residential school because she wasn’t ready and I understand that. But remembering the children by “sharing” her teddy and placing him outside with a note was something we could do together.

As we did this, I thought about where we got this brown teddy.

When my family was in a car accident, first responders gave my children teddy bears in the ambulance. My kids came home from the hospital hugging their bears and still lovingly call them by name, “Shaw” and “Mischief.”

Not all children look to authorities and police officers as people who help.1

Given the RCMP’s role in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their family homes, and the ongoing, disproportionate police brutality and incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Canada, a message like what they put out this week is the very definition of performative allyship.

Acknowledge? We’re past that. I have more time for the responses than I do this Tweet


Don’t let grief become theatre

We may be feeling fresh grief over this story from the Kamloops residential school, but we can’t say we didn’t know. We may be shocked by the discovery of these graves, but we can’t say we didn’t know. 2

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 involved years of collecting stories of residential school survivors — stories that many people had been telling for years. 

We knew, or learned then, about thousands of deaths in the residential school system and that there was community knowledge of more deaths than were reported.

Survivors told stories of every type of abuse — physical, sexual, psychological. We know about the electric chair — an electric chair for children — at St. Anne’s school in Ontario.3 We know about the malnutrition at the “mush-hole,” the nickname for the Mohawk Institute residential school because porridge was often served there for every meal. 

Now survivors are telling their stories again. On the radio. On TV. In the newspapers.

And this is where my grief gets a bitter edge. None of this is new. It’s the very opposite. This is the foundation of how Canada came to be.4

Why are we retraumatizing survivors and their communities to hear these stories again when we haven’t answered the TRC’s calls to action?

In 2016, I remember listening to a podcast in which Mohawk academic Audra Simpson called this process “theatre.” I remember that word being extremely uncomfortable because I couldn’t conceive of these traumatic stories being enjoyable to anyone. In 2021, the concept of theatre makes more sense to me. With theatre, the audience stays passive, no matter how many times the stories get told and consumed.

Truth comes before justice

The truth has been told many times over but so many of us are stuck in the shock and newness phase. 

A lot of it has to do with the fact that Canadians have been taught a redacted version of our own history.

Personally, I didn’t learn about residential schools until I first encountered the accounts of survivors in the news media. This is why I feel so strongly about better, fuller news media coverage, from a wider range of perspectives and voices — because, as the saying goes, news is the first draft of history. And when only settlers tell the story, we get it wrong.

I find truth on social media. Here are some people I follow:

🎯 On Twitter

Activist and professor Cindy Blackstock, podcast host Ryan McMahon, author Alicia Elliott, journalist Angela Sterritt, journalist Connie Walker, lawyer Maggie Wente, Jesse Wente of the Indigenous Screen Office, Native Women’s Association of Canada, academic Daniel Heath Justice, artist Tanya Tagaq, journalist and author Tanya Talaga, Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa, politician Romeo Saganash, doctor Lisa Richardson, satire site Walking Eagle News created by writer Tim Fontaine, academic Courtney Skye, IndigiNews, APTN and more.

🎯 On Instagram

Activist and professor Pam Palmater, throat singer Shina Nova, entrepreneur and dancer James Jones or NotoriousCree, the #WetsuwetenStrong hashtag and more.

I am grateful for Indigenous journalists and educators in Canada (including and maybe especially to the people who now do this work on TikTok). They do the specifically difficult work of reporting within environments that often default to denial, minimizing, hostility or just plain not knowing our nation’s history.

Social media is great for listening to and amplifying Indigenous voices. It’s also great for understanding the moment. I appreciate (and need!) Indigenous voices on humour and lightness, too. But the social media landscape is also rife with performative solidarity.

Don’t let this moment be a performance

What counts as performative allyship? When your words don’t match your actions.

Our biggest example of this in Canada is at the top: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

People love that on the world stage, he’s like a movie star version of a world leader with the the right script.

But while he talks of reconciliation and a “nation-to-nation” relationship:

  • Canada approved the installation of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is being installed during the pandemic without full consent of the the Wet'suwet'en First Nation 5

  • Many First Nations across Canada don’t have clean water. While my children turn on a tap, children in some reserve communities haul water into their homes or avoid taking baths. Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years6

  • The Canadian government continues to spend more, not less, on fighting residential school survivors in court 7

  • The Canadian government is on its 10th non-compliance order regarding Jordan’s Principle, fighting Cindy Blackstock and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s order to fund services for Indigenous children in the same way it funds services for non-Indigenous children 8

It’s unbelievable how different one’s words and actions can get. 

When NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was asked in a press conference about the Kamloops residential school on the day the news broke, he became emotional and had very few words: “I’m sorry; we’re going to fight for justice for you.”

I’m not trying to be political about one party versus another here. But justice, with concrete steps, is the only appropriate response.

These calls to action are for all of us

There’s much work to do. At the bare minimum, we can start with the TRC’s calls to action. Six years later, the vast majority of the 94 actions have not been addressed. 

These calls to action aren’t for Indigenous people among us or only targeted to a prime minister who is literally the system. 

The calls to action are for all of us.

In 2021, I hope the tide is turning toward everyone feeling a collective responsibility. More Indigenous children are taken from their families today into the child welfare system than they were at the height of the residential school system.9

If you’re overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, remember the TRC calls to action are an actual roadmap. You don’t have to step into a different world to get these actions done. You can use your job — in child welfare, health, education, law, churches, media or government and more — to incorporate the TRC calls into your own work. In fact, it’s our duty. Or use your personal influence, and we all have it, however big or small, to make change.

I’ll continue to teach my children about residential schools. And I’ll continue to do whatever I can with my journalism and teaching to create space for Indigenous stories and voices, not only of trauma, but of Indigenous excellence, of Indigenous humour, of Indigenous artistry and culture and business and governance. 

I’ll sign off with this: I heard activist DeRay Mckesson speak this week and one comment particularly resonated. He said, “Community will always be bigger than our problems.” I’m letting that energy power me to do what I can in community with others.

This week, I made donations to the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, Cindy Blackstock’s organization that centres Indigenous children. And I looked up children’s books recommended by Nicole Stamp, an expert in youth education and racial justice. 

I bought a pair of books for myself and another pair to give away. If you want to win this pair of books, hit reply with “TRUTH” in the subject line and I’ll choose a name at random (reply before Monday, June 7 @ 8 pm ET, residents of Canada only).

And if you have recommendations for reading on Indigenous life, justice, humour and culture, drop them on my Instagram. Include readers of all ages! I bet lots of people would love to see them.

Thank you for reading and take care,

Hannah

✨✨✨ This newsletter was edited by Laura Hensley ✨✨✨

Processing these news stories is difficult. Support for survivors and families is available. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419. Wellness Together Canada can be accessed online or by texting WELLNESS to 741741.

Further Reading

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, 2015

NWAC Action Plan: Our Calls, Our Actions, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s action plan regarding MMIWG, 2021

Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, 2019

Bearskin Lake First Nation says Canada Day will be used as ‘day of mourning’, APTN

Who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people? Making sense of the Coastal GasLink conflict, The Globe and Mail

Secwépemc Communities Pronunciations, Thompson Rivers University

Sisters & Brothers, a short film by Kent Monkman

White Elephant, a new work by artist Shary Boyle

And I’m proud to have worked with TVO Indigenous to give space to these important voices. These videos are from 2019:

What non-Indigenous Canadians need to know, with public speaker Eddie Robinson

How to change systemic racism in Canada featuring Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Children and Family Caring Society

Why do Indigenous topics cause such emotional discomfort? featuring Ryerson professor Pam Palmater

1

‘Defund the police, resource our communites:’ A call for structural change, Healthy Debate. “The safest communities are not the communities with the most policing. They are the communities that are empowered and well resourced. In Canada, the No. 1 predictor of income is race. The No. 1 predictor of health is income.”

5

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs vow to take tall steps necessary to ensure the health of Wedzin Kwa - Morice/Bulkley River, the yintah and People in the wake of the BC Supreme Court decision in Coastal Gas Link judicial review

8

Non-Compliance Orders, FN Caring Society