215 shoes

Remarks from a ceremony to gather in shoes and raise the flags at City Hall in St. Catharines.
June 8, 2021. Video available on Facebook.

photo credit, Jill Shimizu-Lunn

Aniin, boozhoo.  Wabanan Anangokwe n’dshnakhaaz.  Adik dodem. Obishkokaang n’doonjiba. Oniaghara n’doonjiba. Ojibwe Anishnaabe n’daw.

I am the daughter of Roy Wesley.  Roy went to a day school in Sioux Lookout. I am the niece of Ronald and Angus, and George and Frank. They went to Pelican Lake Indian Residential School just outside Lac Seul First Nation. They went to Shingawauk Residential School.

If you Google Frank Wesley Residential Schools, you’ll find a photo album from Algoma University in their archives, and you can look at it, and you’ll see pictures. 

I took my dad home one year, we went home for a powwow. And we sat him beside an old friend named Kelly. He hadn’t seen Kelly for decades. He asked me to pull up that photo album and show it to Kelly.

So I did.

Kelly scrolled through the pictures, smiling at some memories and suddenly silent at others.  He told me who was still alive and who wasn’t.  And then he got to a picture of two young women who were smiling and just said, that bitch. Then he told me what she did to him, what she did to others.  We kept scrolling through the pictures and then we came to another with those same two young women in it. I looked at the boys in that photograph. The ones who weren’t smiling. The ones who were leaning away from these women.

And I wondered about them.

There’s a lot of ways for Indigenous people to disappear. As Canada expanded across the West we disappeared into reservations. Then our children disappeared into residential schools. Then they disappeared into child welfare. Our men and our women disappear into prisons.

And sometimes we just disappear.

There is residential school less than 90 minutes from here, called the Woodland Cultural Center now but back in the day it was called The Mush Hole. One day when I was still working for child welfare a student came with me to see a family that I was working with. And I decided that it was important that he see the residential school. And so we went, and I hadn’t booked a tour, I didn’t know that you had to book one and I don’t always plan things very well. One was starting, and he pointed to it, and said let’s go, and so we did, we sneaked into this tour and went with them room by room. 

They told us the stories, things that the survivors had told them, things that have happened in the different rooms what they were. We saw the kitchen, where the children cooked meals from the produce that they raised on the farm, and served it to the teachers and to the dignitaries and then we saw the dining room where they ate the mush that gave the school its name.  We saw the basement room where the priests would instigate and then bet on fights between the boys.

Two rooms, stayed with me in particular. When you first entered the building there was a glass walled room at the front, which was where the children would visit their parents. Once a month, speaking only English, so that the people on the other side of the glass knew what was being said. And at that time, I was working in child welfare, and we too have glass windowed rooms. When people visit there, if we need them we tried to get translators, but if we couldn’t we ask them to speak English.

And then the last room, which had been the lounge where the kids would sit and watch TV. That school didn’t close until 1970.  The Residential School system itself didn’t close until 1997. The Fresh Prince left Bel Air before the last residential school closed in Canada.  But the Mush Hole closed in 1970 and at that time I was five.

I too sat in a living room watching the same shows that these students watched.  We watched Lassie, and Gun Smoke and Bonanza. And we learned about people, about who mattered and who just disappeared.

Canada, your surprise and your sadness is exhausting.

They’re exhausting. Every time this happens, we’re here on these steps. We have vigils and round dances we have teach-ins and how many. It’s been months not even since we’ve stood on the steps.  And we hear from politicians that this time things are going to be better, this time.

In the early 1900s Dr Peter Bryce filed a report on the Residential Schools telling the government, telling Canada that the kids were dying.  The kids were sick, the kids weren’t being fed properly, and Canada had the means and the tools to address it and they chose not to.

That report got filed along with the RCAP (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples). Anybody remember they RCAP report? Yeah, that got filed to sit on a shelf. The TRC?  Justin Trudeau put out a tweet about this sad news from Kamloops Indian residential school and  Shelagh Rogers responded, news? She said, I was there when you were handed the volumes of the TRC report, one of which is about these graves.  I was there, she says, when Senator Murray Sinclair addressed the empty chairs that represented the children who died in the residential schools and this is news?

And then the Pope, tweets out recognition for Canada, he’s sad that Canadians are feeling traumatized. I get it, I understand how traumatizing it must be for Canadians to hear this again and again.

You keep forgetting.

And we keep reminding you.

We’re tired, we’re tired that you’re sad. We’re tired that you’re surprised, we’re tired that you’re not even reading the executive summaries, they’re not that long.

The inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirited people came out not that long ago.  Read the executive summaries. This is Indigenous People’s Month. Do not ask us for more labor.  Read those reports. Find the calls to action that apply to you and do them.

Form relationships, as the city of St Catharines has with Niagara Regional Native Center.  Form relationships so that when things happen you have relationships to draw on. So that when September 30 comes along you’ve got relationships, and you’re not just randomly asking your favorite native person to come and say something.

Form relationships, so that when you ask us to look at things you’ve written or thinking we can speak honestly about it, because we’re tired.

Your sadness and your surprise, we’re tired. 

We’re tired of disappearing.

Miigwech.

image of a wmoan with long braid and moon behind her

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