Respecting Indigenous People's Experiences, Bandwidth and Healing Process
Updated: Jan 12
You most likely have seen news coverage about the 215 Indigenous children found buried at a British Columbia residential school. This is unsurprising yet tragic and heartbreaking news. Canada sadly has a long history of inhumane and cruel behaviour, discrimination and racism towards our First Nations communities. These are communities who have endured generations of trauma at the hand of a colonial system that refuses to value them.
While it is important to acknowledge this and to find honesty in our history, what is more important is how we move forward and address things now. Much needs to change and much is owed. Concrete action needs to take place. One place to start however, is to centre Indigenous people and their experiences whenever we approach the topic or discuss events such as this news.
What I mean by that is that, as white people, we are further removed from this news. We can see it as an outside observer, we can acknowledge that it is terrifying, tragic and unacceptable. But we do not have the personal, emotional and cultural connection to it that Indigenous people do. We have the privilege of not understanding what it’s like to have a country aim to erase and destroy our culture. While this is a news story to us, it may be a very different experience for someone in one of our First Nations communities.
It is so important not to forget how recently residential schools were still in operation. The last school closed in 1996. There are people still alive today who have experienced them. We should not be demanding that Indigenous people to speak on this discovery. We should not be demanding emotional labour by asking them to relive their trauma so we can have what we think is a better understanding.
Imagine being someone who attended that very school. Would you want to be re-traumatized by having to relive the experience, to recount it for someone who more than likely only cares out of curiosity? The media needs to be responsible and mindful in their reporting. This is not a shocking story for headlines or clicks. These are the life experiences of real people who are still facing and overcoming those experiences.
There are Indigenous people who are not yet 70 years old who attended these schools. I have seen people speak out who were made as children to dig graves for children who were killed in these schools. And I say "who were killed" because saying "who died" does not create accountability. These children were stripped from their homes, their culture and language beaten out of them. They suffered intense trauma, sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Someone is responsible for that. The government, the church, the system needs to be held accountable.
Trudeau tweeted about this "dark chapter in Canadian history", but 1996 is not history. People still alive today who are trying to heal from their own trauma as well as the intergenerational impacts of these racist institutions are not history. This is our present.
In Canada, suicide rates are twice the national average for the First Nations population. Trauma has a tremendous impact on mental health and the experiences Indigenous communities have had contribute to the discrepancies seen in mental health statistics.
Indigenous communities are mourning and processing. Imagine living in a country that was taken from you. Now imagine seeing that when 15 white youth pass away from a bus crash, the nation grieves as one, but when 215 children's remains are discovered and purposeful evil is the cause, the nation takes no pause.
I think it’s important to remember the human side of this tragic discovery and to act and communicate in a way that centres and honours the experiences of those humans. While Indigenous people live experiences we may not be able to understand as white people, we can have compassion and decency.
What is important in this news story is for First Nations communities to have the freedom and support to do what must be done to best take care of their communities, to honour these children and to heal from the trauma. And they must be allowed to be leaders in their own healing, by which I mean they know best what they need. It is up to us to listen and to take action.
We need to avoid blindly sharing news stories about this event without digging deeper and understanding our privilege and our part in a system that upholds this oppression and violence.
Give the Indigenous people in your life respect and space right now, as well as support. The children found in these mass graves would have still been alive today. They would have had the chance to be community leaders, to start families, and to be just who they are, showing up in whatever way is right to them, carrying on tradition, language and culture.
There is no "get over it, it's the past". Do not relegate this event to history.
For Indigenous folks: For those struggling to cope, to process and who need support, a National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up for former students and those affected. It offers emotional support and crisis referral services 24-hours a day at 1-866 925-4419.
For white people: Visit this organization, which is 100% grassroots, volunteer-based and young adult-led. It aims to address and inform about the social inequities that exist in our country. It also has helpful guidance on concrete action that can be taken: https://oncanadaproject.ca/settlerstakeaction