The memorial of the 27 children who died while attending residential school in Chapleau moved me deeply. The country that I love tried to erase these children. We tried to erase the languages they spoke and the cultures they belonged to. How do we even start trying to make things right?
As I learned this summer, step one is to just show up. The community showed me what to do from there.
This summer I reached out to the Chapleau Cree First Nation, the community that had created the beautiful memorial.
I soon found myself joining in the grieving process, an experience I will not soon forget.
Every August, the community gathers at the cemetery to honour the victims of St John’s residential school. A sacred fire is lit beside the marble monument with the names of the 27 children. Elders from the community lead a procession down to it, with some 40 other people. Every year the crowd gets bigger, and this year there were a handful of nonindigenous participants, including me.
This year, the ceremony was led by both a male and a female elder. It began with a short history of efforts to remember the victims of the school. The children buried here have been remembered by their communities all these many years. And they remember more than the 27 whose names appear here today. The elder spoke of the search that his community, as well as Brunswick House First Nation and Chapleau Ojibway First Nation, have launched.
The female elder’s words were gentle, addressing the anger these unmarked graves quite naturally provoke. She reminded community members that many in Canada did not know the full extent of the abuse that took place at these schools. She advised the gathering grievers that they should put their anger aside, and direct their energy instead to the search for where the missing children lie.
But the implication of her message for us non-indigenous Canadians rang in my ears. Now that we do, in fact, know what happened at these schools, we have to act.
Canadians can no longer claim not to know that our society set up a system to assimilate indigenous children and ran it for more than a century. Generation after generation of our people ran schools where children were neglected, underfed and abused. These schools had such unsanitary conditions that would never have been tolerated in schools for non-indigenous children. And when children died in much higher proportions, our institutions chose to ignore the pleas for help.
Standing there, listening to the elder speak so gently, I was acutely conscious that it was my own people who had done this to hers. It made the grace she demonstrated all the more remarkable.
As the elders spoke, younger members of the community passed around tobacco, strawberries, and blueberries to everyone in attendance. We were invited to wander it through the cemetery, leaving these gifts wherever we imagined the children might be buried.
I learned that in Cree culture we are meant to partake in the gifts we share with the dead. We enjoy the food they can no longer taste, on their behalf.
I followed community members through the burial site, stopping at each memorial stone to leave blueberries and strawberries. And eating one at each site myself.
We were given tobacco to offer as well. Tobacco is one of four sacred medicines, and you are to offer it with your left hand – the one closest to your heart. After I left a few leaves at each site, I walked counter clockwise around the sacred fire and offered tobacco there too.
After the service, I approached the elder and tried to share how meaningful the experience had been for me. I couldn't summon the words. She was kind, and after a moment she suggested we talk further at the pow wow her community was organizing the next day.
And we did. The pow wow is worth another entry all on its own. But it was at the gravesite that I felt a line being crossed.
Sharing grief changes a relationship. We can start again in our relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. We can start by looking to our shared past, and in a spirit of shared grief we can start to heal the relationship.