Tiny shoes cover steps to church buildings, orange ribbons fly from school fences and little lights spot otherwise empty fields.
These are ever-growing visual reminders of a brutal and genocidal legacy of a church-run, government-funded project of assimilation that operated in Canada for 150 years, ending only in 1996.
On May 27, 2021, the small bodies of 215 children were confirmed to be buried in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This horrific discovery, in its indisputable physicality, has triggered long overdue action to commence a wider search on other sites.
In Canada, as of the date of writing, more than 5,000 children’s bodies have been confirmed buried in unmarked and sometimes mass graves. Similar discoveries have been made in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Riverside, California; Rapid City, South Dakota; and six other sites across the United States of America, totaling to date 1,146 children.
Indigenous Peoples knew these little ones were missing. They were never forgotten.
For me (Michelle), right now, the intersectionality of the identities that I was born into — and have walked into — have broken me. My heart, soul, mind and body ache in ways I haven’t known before.
I am a Cree Métis woman. I was raised in rural Saskatchewan; however, my Métis grandmother completely denied our Indigeneity.
Withdrawing from ceremonies to evade racism, my ancestors may have feared their children would also be taken. They felt it necessary to deny their history in an attempt to protect their future — and succumbed to the colonizer. When discoveries are made near my home, it hurts even more deeply.
I am a mother. It shatters me to imagine what it was like for the mothers, grandmothers and communities to witness Indian Agents and Royal Canadian Mounted Police destroy families.
It overwhelms me to think of small, rural towns without children laughing and playing. It devastates me to consider the mothers of the missing and murdered being lied to, dismissively informed that their children had simply run away from school.
As if that explanation would be sufficient for any mother, subsequently, countless families have been searching for these lost souls for decades. My heart aches for these generations that were lost – for the knowledge keepers, mothers, fathers, siblings that were callously denied their life’s purpose.
I am a Christian. I cannot reconcile the actions that were committed in the name of Jesus. I want to scream from the rooftops that this is not Christianity.
Jesus is calling those little ones to him now, “Come to me. You belong in the kingdom of heaven, all ye who are hurting, and I will give you rest.” Christ is the one that is bringing me peace during this time of deep sorrow and grief.
Yet, some of those who suffered these great injustices do not know his peace, because they were violated by those who held positions of power in the church.
I am human. I am heartbroken by the reality of adults, in a position of trust, systematically harming vulnerable children. I am confused by the reality that virtually no one has been held accountable for these crimes.
Trusting children — instruments of pure love — were led into physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual and cultural abuse. These are crimes against humanity that have gone unpunished.
These days, my sorrow changes as it unfolds. I am working to be present to the feelings, so that I can heal. I do not want to be resilient anymore; I am fatigued, I am weary, and I am weak.
Yet, I know that I need to heal so my children can have a better life. As each of these discoveries is unearthed, the open, gaping wound in my soul is covered with salt again. Still, I trust that Jesus is making all things new.
Could Jesus be awakening the church anew in these days? A church that does not hide from responsibility but that presses in, shares in suffering, laments, and turns its action to doing justice?
This article is being published on the holiday observed in much of the U.S. as Columbus Day.
While there has been debate for many years about whether to celebrate Columbus or Indigenous peoples on this day, it seems that the question is even more stark this year.
“Christ the Colonizer” is the literal translation of Christopher Columbus’s name, as Edgardo Colón-Emeric points out in his book Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor, drawing on Bartholomé De Las Casas’ Historia de las Indias.
So, will we allow the name of Christ to be used to justify a legacy of dehumanization that results in unmarked graves on church-run school grounds?
Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not” (Matthew 19:14).
Jodi Spargur lives as a guest on the unceded Coast Salish Territory known as Vancouver working as an urban farmer, a pastor and a justice seeker. Currently, Spargur directs Healing at the Wounding Place, a non-profit network that creates Indigenous led local actions for healing and justice, provides cultural safety and anti-racism trainings as well as consulting with organizations for systemic change.