In today's episode of Don't Call Me Resilient, we take a look at what has happened since the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were found in Kamloops B.C. in May 2021.
**Warning: This episode contains details that some listeners may find distressing**
It's been a year since the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children — some of them as young as three years old — were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. In this episode, Vinita speaks to Veldon Coburn, assistant professor at the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies at the University of Ottawa about what happened, the widespread grief and outcry and the immediate political response, but also, how none of that lasted despite communities continuing to find bodies. Joining Vinita on the episode is Haley Lewis, Don't Call Me Resilient producer and culture and society editor at The Conversation Canada. Lewis is mixed Kanyen'keha:ká from Tyendinaga and led our coverage of the findings last year.
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Vinita: “From the Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’m Vinita Srivastava
Veldon: …So what are you going to do, settler allies? Are you going to give us the land back? Are you going to go and just say, you know what, this government is illegitimate. We're going to reconstruct or reinvest the indigenous nations and their populous with the political [00:08:00] agency to sort of begin to new…
Vinita: A year ago, 215 Indigenous children’s bodies were found in unmarked graves. They were detected on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Some were as young as three years old — Since then, hundreds more have been found.
Across Canada and the U.S communities reeled as more information was uncovered.
Many felt pain and outrage. Some also experienced relief that their family members who had disappeared from residential schools were finally found.
The Canadian government responded immediately making promises to address historical wrongs.
Today, close to one year later, we’re taking a look back at what happened,
the immediate response, shock and, outcry but also how none of that
lasted. despite communities continuing to find children’s bodies.
An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools - which were put in place by colonial governments - with the goal of exterminating Indigenous histories, cultures + languages.
The last residential school closed in 1996.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report they provided a conservative estimate that between 4,000 and 6,000 children died while in attendance.
Are changes and (re)conciliation on the horizon?
Has the government kept their promises to dedicate resources?
Those are some of the questions we explore on today’s episode.
Joining us is Veldon Coburn. He is an assistant professor in the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is Algonquian from Pikwàkanagàn First nation.
Coburn is Anishinaabe from Pikwàkanagàn and authored The Conversation's first article titled no longer the disappeared - following the Kamloops findings.
Also joining us is Don't Call Me Resilient producer, Haley Lewis. Haley is mixed Kanyen'keha:ka form the Bay of Quinte who helped The Conversation cover this story as it unfolded.
**Warning: This episode contains details that some listeners may find distressing**
Vinita: Veldon, you wrote the first piece for The Conversation last year after the news broke, what was that like for you?
So it has to do with the politics of, of memory who and what gets memorialized in Canada, especially in colonial societies in white supremacist societies, part of the national myth of Canada is being something that's, you know, a very useful nation in comparison to the historic nations that are several millennia old is that this was Terra nullius that there was empty land. no people were here, there were no nations. So, we're getting to a point where perhaps we're getting past that it still resonates within the, uh, political structures, but within the social consciousness, Indigenous peoples are disrupting that.
So there is a bit of. Reception from the wider Canadian population. I mean, there is still a segment that, embraces the denialism that is still very firmly entrenched and invested in the ongoing lie of this being a place of no people like empty land itself. so what does it mean [00:01:00] that their elimination of Indigenous peoples, especially the, ones that inherit a nation. So the children, they're the ones that transmit it to the next generation. They inherited from their ancestors and they become the stewards for the next.
[But, you still grapple with the politics in the public domain of dealing with those who are coming to grips with the birth of this nation. The very ugly birthing pains, the not quite the death of Indigenous nations. can Canada, except the fact that, it emerged out of the graves of, of the most vulnerable of, of indigenous children who are, taken to be the terminal generation for their nations. those are big questions still. it's an ugly history for the supposed bastion of, in the new world. Anyways, next door to the United States of the great liberal democracies. I came out of some, some very brutal and genocidal ugliness, that hasn't gone away for [00:02:00] Indigenous folks, but it may die out of the news cycle But the politics of the memorialization is that for those particular children, themselves, their families remembered their nations remembered that they were, somebody and that they were out to still find them. as hard as the perpetrators tried, they couldn't quite hide the facts.
Vinita: These were children that were lost to their families and communities. they weren't that they were missing children.
Veldon: and it's a Testament to, you know, there's siblings that are out there. So maybe seeing graves of their siblings from 70 years ago. So you may have somebody who's a very elderly who said I went to a residential school and I know I went with my brother or my sister and within weeks they were gone and nobody knew what they were somebody held onto that memory for a long time. Came back to the community, passed down to their children, said you would have had an uncle or you would have had an ad's. There are pictures of us when we were children and, I'm [00:03:00] going to find them like, so the tenacity of, them holding on to the effort to find the disappeared.
Vinita: of the things that I learned from Haley too, she talks about the tenacity of communities, And how. The reason these children were found. is because of the tenacity of people you're talking, about? you you mentioned something about the news cycle Veldon and, one of the other things. that I read last year was the story by Haley. and she said, you know, it's in the news cycle right now. it's in the national consciousness Right? now. and there seems to be this outcry and outpouring of national grief. And promises made right now. Hailey, I remember that when we talked about it, you said that you predicted actually that nothing would actually ultimately come of it. And I'm wondering about that prediction that you made last year and how you feel about it now.[00:04:00]
I feel like it makes me sound really pessimistic, but it's hard to not be pessimistic after decades of mistreatment and there being no relationship between the government and Indigenous folks. And it was hard for me writing that last year to kind of grapple with it because I'm looking around and I'm seeing. Non-Indigenous folks, you know, being so upset by this news. It was something that the TRC had flagged years ago. but no one listened then. so it actually takes this concrete, evidence, so to speak for people to be upset by it. And that is so infuriating. And I had people coming out of the woodworks you know, asking me how they could be proper allies or, if I could educate them on residential schools.
And that is, not my, story to tell that is not my expertise. I'm fully honest about who I am and where I come from. I am Kanyen'keha:ka, a woman on my father's side from, The Bay of Quinte, Tyendinaga. But like my mother. White. I grew up [00:05:00] off reserve. Like I don't understand the nuances of many things. I can talk to some things, but not to others. So it was, exhausting having, you know, so many people come out of the woodwork and just ask basically for my, for my guidance.
and my prediction, it's come true. Right? Like was really upset and there was an outpouring of communal grief. And I was like, is this going to be the thing that changes, that changes it for everyone? is this finally going to be it? And for a little while after the news broke and you know, news continued to break on along the same vein, it seemed like maybe it was, and then, you know, summer came to an end uptick a little bit more with,
first national truth and reconciliation day at the end of September, I'm pretty well petered off. and indigenous children continue to be found. There were some found like as late as last week. So it's this National grief that was allegedly felt by Saturday. One just feels a little [00:06:00] bit performative
and I know I'm sounding extraordinarily
Vinita: well, I guess the question is why do you think people's interests have waned? and why do you think people no longer care? maybe we can ask Belden what he thinks,
Veldon: Well, I think it goes to a little bit of the points that Haley raises and I share almost all of her pessimism as well is that, maybe our pain is something to be consumed, or like the voyeurism or the fetishism, mostly the voyeurism of Indigenous pain. So you do have that performative ally ship sort of is that, um,
I was, reading and watching a lecture by Slavoj Žižekfor example. And he said, in this sort of time where you have people who are acknowledging. what their ancestors did, especially. So white liberals themselves is that they like to embrace a sort of humiliation it [00:07:00] feels good for them sort of as that, oh, we were so bad, but they don't really do anything about it. And, they recenter themselves in discussions by saying, not quite making themselves the victims, but, attracting attention for themselves, saying we really don't deserve this world. Look what we did to, to the Indigenous peoples, and then go about their day because well, they put in there a little bit of performance. Uh, the theater has been done there seems to be this economy, of desire built around sort of the pleasure in observing Indigenous pain, and, they're not gonna get to do anything afterwards, too. it's still sort the symbolic work that doesn't really change the material existence of our lives, so what are you going to do, settler allies? Are you going to give us the land back? Are you going to go and just say, you know what, this government is illegitimate. We're going to reconstruct or reinvest the indigenous nations and their populous with the political [00:08:00] agency to sort of begin to new re-install their governments and let them govern over their people in territory of which some people would be absorbed as citizens. No, not really. I take a dim view too, of the white liberal suppose it ally. because their allyship is a signal out towards others of how great they are and righteous and virtuous, they may be.
something that you said fell done at the beginning of our conversation about, people who are old enough to really have felt the trauma. They remember having a sibling and the not knowing what happened. I'm sure that that is a lifelong trauma that, stays with you it and generationally as well. from your perspectives from both of you, what sort of impact, has,the past year had on Indigenous communities? Haley, do you want to start.
I think it's impacted a lot of people differently. it's worth acknowledging that a lot of people have this monolithic view of, [00:09:00] Indigenous people in Canada and, there are so many communities and so many even diverse folks within those communities that that reactions were quite different. There was definitely a lot of collective pain, even from Indigenous folks, not directly involved in it, you are directly involved in it in some way or another, I remember pretty soon after it happened, cause I live in Ottawa walking to parliament hill and bringing my partner.
and we were just standing by the Memorial where community members had erected a way to honor, the kids and there were these like little tiny Crocs I, don't know, What about the little tiny crocs? Just like brought both like me and my partner to tears.
it's just so sad seeing all those shoes lined up and the way the shoes did it, they really contextualized just how many children we lost. I think as horrible as this may sound, it did bring community together too.
folks are trying to help each other out with searches. so it did bring people together, but, through a lot of pain and I think there was hope that,[00:10:00] this was going to, be something that incited change. And again, the pessimist in me is not surprised that it really hasn't.
I would say something along the same lines, too. it had more internal. and, and it wasn't something I necessarily like there was an outpouring that we need other people to share. Although there was that, as I said before, the little bit that voyeurism that they're watching, the Indigenous people go through sort of their pain and, suffering internally, I Like I saw it in my own community too, because we have our own story about one of the boys that, went to the muscles. So the Mohawk Institute and brown. he died on his way home evading police with his brother. So his siblings are still alive. We had a little walk for Joey Commander, him and his brother Rocky Commander were I think 13 + 11 when they ran away from the mush hole.
HALEY: And as they
Veldon: they were coming to pick, walk, the gone, which is, several hundred kilometers away. on day two [00:11:00] of their walk and they're in the train yards at night in between Burlington and Oakville and Joey commanda was hit by a train running away from the police as they were trying to chase them. So they were sort of like on the Lam, identified as people that had to be taken back to the Mohawk institute. And we had the stories and there was a lot of discussion and we still sort of memorialized Joey commanda, uh, some of the bridges around our community, even in the little towns, they tied, ribbons like 215 Although as Haley pointed out, like even after last spring, there were there were numbers of institutions that were discovered to have evidence of mass disposal sites
Veldon: all these people had lie for so long and said, no, nobody died at these places. There's no graves. And like, but I did have a brother, like I'm not crazy. Or I had a sister.
And I could see them once a day down the hall, but, um, I never saw them again.
I was looking at census [00:12:00] records, even like my community, where we only had a few hundred, a few, if you lose, you know, a couple thousand kids a year
to these institutions, some of them don't come home.
Like that's still a significant proportion
Vinita: I mean, one, one, is significant. Two is significant. This one is
Veldon: One is too many,
like when we're talking on the, like the moral calculus, and this is the absurdity of it there is the denialism wing of broader Canadian society is like, why don't you bat an eye at the idea that the schools that you set up for us had large graves. Like even just, why didn't you even just send the children home?
you know, the article that you spoke to earlier that I had written was that ambiguous loss that people in juror is not knowing.
Vinita: people that you're talking about. And then you'd go one step further. Are you
talking about children?
Veldon: The most vulnerable, right. it was almost like a factory for death or the production of [00:13:00] non-indigenous people. So you go in, you're going to destroy you either,culturally, but there's a good chance that you'll also be destroyed and your physical being too. So some of the statistics, and this was at the height of the worst times, is that the probability of dying in Indian residential schools was one out of 24.
Whereas in world war one, it was one out of 25. So you're looking at it as like, it was more deadly at its most deadliest period of going to Indian, residential schools.
one of the things you talked about, Veldon is this idea of memorializing or the ambiguity of not having the ability to memorialize and.
Vinita: Veldon, one of the things that you talked about is this ambiguity of loss and not having the ability to memorialise the death of your loved ones. The TRC final report includes a section that's dedicated to the missing children. Could you talk about these calls? What actions do these calls ask for? And I guess the second part of that question is where is the Canadian government on these calls?
Haley: they're nowhere on these calls. that's the thing, it's been almost seven years now since the TRC released its final report and they've completed. I mean, allegedly, depending on the sources that you look at, allegedly around 13 of the 94, so that's where things stand. They did complete several after last year's event but none of them were related to.
the low hanging fruit, like the establishing the national day of truth and reconciliation, [the stuff that takes like real effort.] so I think maybe those were real generous offering when the olive branch was extended to the other side and saying let's reconcile.
Veldon: And then the government said, well, we can do all these, but we can't do these other, we're never going to really tell you, the same thing goes with, say the churches that were involved. So I think a lot of the blame rests on. The Catholic church, We got some boys spurs from the delegation that went to the Vatican recently have, you know, what may happen.
And there's the invitation from the Canadian Council of Catholic bishops to finally
come, a lot of these, uh, elderly survivors may never see a Pope on soil
prepared or at least gesturing towards the sorrel and reconciliation, but there's a burden upon them because they collected the records and the reporting to whatever provincial or national agencies that collect these vital statistics.
So you have to, provide the death reports. And if these children are in your carrier, where did you bury them?
Vinita: lot to answer for. I mean, they ran, they ran most of the residential schools if I'm not mistaken.
Over 60% of the federal [00:17:00] residential schools were run by
Vinita: So the Pope, sorry, go
is it worth mentioning? And no, one's going to be able to see this,
HALEY: the apology, air quotes that happened, in early April, he did say, quote, I am So sorry. End quote, but that was it. It wasn't, taking institutional responsibility.
HALEY: he wasn't explicitly saying what he was sorry for.
Vinita: he didn't say what he was sorry for. He just said, I'm so sorry.
HALEY: yeah, just, I'm so sorry.
it. so you're right. It was not the institutional matter. It was just like, there happened to be
Veldon: some people
affiliated with us.
bad eggs, It just feels
like the apology
Vinita: Some bad eggs, not like, uh, an architect of like a systemic
design by design
structure in place designed
to actually kill.
Vinita: A brief interruption in this pod to say that since recording this episode, the Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will visit Canada in late July.
Veldon: Those who exercised authority which, you know, if you're looking at the law would [00:18:00] attract corporate liability if they were directors or managers, like if they were management and these people basically were so people from priests and above, or those that were in their employees. the legal obligations that if a child dies in your care,
Veldon: you can't just Willy nilly dispose them in the back.
and not really tell anyone, there was reporting requirements that were also, um, matter of statutory responsibility.
these calls to action that say, we need a comprehensive record of these lives because these children, they didn't grow up to, leave as much of, as a legacy.
Veldon: They did live in the memory of, families and communities and not going to be forgotten, they have a social afterlife that they live on through us and we want to cultivate that for them. the barrier right now is being held up by these people that profess to have a special connection to God themselves.
that's also the [00:19:00] absurdity and the paradox that people,
can't quite get their mind around, I think there's about
13 million Catholics in Canada
so if that has such a prominent place in their life, wouldn't it shake the legitimacy that this was also an institution that was capable of letting people die, producing the conditions for their unnatural death and in some cases, outright homicides. do you think that that is a.
Vinita: Tiny step towards reconciliation
HALEY: You're talking to two pessimists, right.
HALEY: I mean, as much as, yeah. as much as I'm a pessimist, I do think it meant something to, a fair number of people. And that's something that's important to acknowledge. Is that him saying, I'm sorry, did guess close the door [00:20:00] for some folks. and it's important to acknowledge that that is an emotion that
Veldon: if I don't want the apology, that's fine. other people do,
then maybe it wasn't for me. [I don't have a whole lot of direct and I don't have any
Veldon: personal, experience in residential schools.] it wasn't like a
full throated apology in any sense. it might've just been an expression
of sorrow really. you
know, it was a little bit better than what he said last time, which was, I feel a closeness do them and it was resoundly mocked. but there are those, Darren's to the faith.
There are still some that find themselves in the flock, uh, that said, well, the words of this person, even if they are just a sliver of remorse is enough So even a few words, even if it doesn't matter to other people mites and, because these are things that money will never heal.
Vinita: hear what you're saying. Money will never heal, but there is a lot of
I [00:21:00] mean, there are those that are still suing the Catholic
Veldon: church the CNN's Indian residential
school in Fort Alberni.
they didn't settle through the Indian, residential school
Veldon: settlement agreements. I think they often doubts and to pursue a different class
and that's the really sort of stomach churning place that had the abuses that,
you know, if any of the listeners right now want to cover their ears, it had the electric chair that, was used for entertainment purposes, put a little indigenous kid into the electric chair.
And as there.
HALEY: You reported
Veldon: You know,
give, run shocks through the body for the entertainment of visiting dignitaries.
there were several criminal charges and convictions in the nineties for the
Veldon: investigation for, members of the clergy that were there, including nuns.
Veldon: when children there were saved, forced
to eat there.
Veldon: uh, and the federal government's actually arguing in court in their submissions that,
although really bad, it didn't cause [00:22:00] lasting harm. that's the argument that the federal government has taken in
this matter. it's a, it's still a sad legacy you mentioned the Indian residential schools, the compensation process earlier. and I think for, for people who are listening, who aren't aware of it, it basically functioned off of a point system and survivors had to categorize the abuses that they suffered. and, they were awarded points So, yeah, having to be given points and then points acquainting to compensation, it just a return process. [but
HALEY: yeah, I I think
it's something that a lot of
Canadians don't don't know about and don't realize
that happened. ]
Vinita: [just here listening to you guys speak today.]
I'm just wondering, listening to both of you talk on a, personal level, how do you deal with all of it on a personal level? What are some of your methods?[00:23:00]
I have some distance, like it's not in great proximity to my immediate life. we do have the discussions because quite a few of them, the older folks had gone to residential schools and they're in our more senior kind of
Veldon: generations too.
So, and they talk about it. and I don't want to be one of those people who take up their experience because I do find that a little bit unseemly myself as those people who try to represent themselves as the victims of something that didn't happen.
But you still see some of the Malays and social enemy in our communities. from where I came from, nobody really wore it on their sleeve and,
keep their chin up, but they know that.
a lot of things happened.
it foreclosed on a lot of opportunities in life.
Veldon: Some people just said, you know, I'm leaving school. So they never went off to you know, even finish high school to do things held in higher esteem and in white settler society,
It sort of passes on because like the, [00:24:00] the greatest predictor of like your education is your parents' education and also sort of your socioeconomic outcomes as your parents. you happen to be sitting with two people who have graduate-level education.
we are still the exception. I mean, I come from a large family. I have like 12 siblings. I'm the only one that went to university.
you, could still see some of the issues around that resonate from how do you destroy a nation?
Veldon: You go after the children, you go after the ones that will be those that transmitted.
Veldon: you can really
disrupt a nation in a commercial.
For generations to come. So, I don't know
HALEY: what it's
like to be beaten in a residential school.
HALEY: Um, similar for me, no one in my immediate family attended residential schools, so I can't speak to that experience. I think the way, I guess, this new. Or these events have impacted me would be through work and wanting to prioritize community. when the [00:25:00] news came up last year, I was like okay, we need to get indigenous folks as hard as it was for a lot of indigenous folks to write about it.
the first voices that we need to hear are our indigenous people. I even wrote for refinery 29 myself, immediately after it happened.
HALEY: And I was briefly on CTV to just talking about it, the way that I saw it as my role as a journalist was to, if it was possible for me to take the burden away from some of those folks who were more directly impacted. Yeah. Carry that weight right away, you know we had Some even residential school. survivors write for us last year. And you read the comment section and you just want to go to bat for those folks. and fight for them and alongside them too.
because I think there's a lot of this commentary and journalism where you speak up for those who can't speak for themselves. I'm like, no, you uplift people's voices. you create space so that they can So,
Veldon: how to make that space was important.
it's also part of the [00:26:00] community too, we all know as someone, we all know a few people, like, you know, the person who lives down the street from my grandmother lost their kids to Indian residential schools, or what have you.
Veldon: There's a lot of those stories. so, you know, I'm playing in the backyard and, it's sort of like the ghosts of young children that are there.
It's like there should have been other kids around here I want to ask one last question before we go. Well, two last questions Belden.
Vinita: I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about your book.
that's coming out in. may You did talk about allies and a disappointment or a skepticism, and I'm wondering, if you see hope or what do you want to see for the future?
speaking of allies, the book that I wrote, co-authoring co-edited with, Dave Thomas, professor of political science at, Mount Allison University.
HALEY: he's somebody who I
Veldon: I believe it's a true ally. just because this is involvements with communities and actually having like stared [00:27:00] down the police before in the past, you know?
So, sometimes when I'm like who's an ally, would they come out into the frontline and stare down the RCMP with us? Or would they be the ones that would be the keyboard warriors?
so I write, and this is sort of, you know, more of the heartbreak, The story that's close to us is that, so I have siblings from grassy narrows and I had like a young sister who died, you know, age five and I was age six.
so we have a mixed, Ojibwe Algonquin family and, to see the death of a child or, you know, a parent would go through, basically born in a condition where, mercury poisoning from the life and in grassy narrows,
when they were born was with a great deal of, fiscal say deformities and stuff like that.
Veldon: That, their life would
be quite precarious because
of organized capital. that's coming out next month.
Vinita: That's the title? Is that what capital is yet? Corporate
Veldon: that's right. Yeah. what
Vinita: do you hope to see in the
future? Maybe it's the 71 to 76
Yeah. I think a full accounting of that knowing a mother who's lost a child,
Veldon: like you'd never want to actually see that.
for the mothers, I know there's many that have long since passed away.
And some of the siblings who are
getting up in age,
HALEY: even if
Veldon: if they have, you know, said to their children and their children may be adults now, and they may have grandchildren. So you can imagine somebody
who's 70 or eighties,
Who lost siblings
at residential schools who didn't come home with them and they've told their children, and now their grandchildren knows,
my grandmother has
been looking their entire life for this
And so some of them take it up for themselves, say
you know, that person lives on through me. And that's the social afterlife that some people have. And it's
Veldon: like, you know, we're going to do it. We're going to finally find out.
and in what other ways they want to dignify the passing, you mentioned earlier.
should they exam it and give them a proper burial? Because some of them, [00:29:00] they might not even know you had the proper Catholic rights. At least they were disposed of they weren't given the headstone. They were probably weren't given a funeral mass or whatnot perhaps their family wants to exude their remains and give them a proper burial within their own community, according to their own, customs and traditions.
whatever they want, for the disappeared to be relocated or located and, given a dignified,
Veldon: final place in the hearts and minds of those that will carry them on forward.
Vinita: How about you? Haley, do you have any last things that you would like to say
about what you hope for in the future
I think community is key. it's our folks who are gonna keep pushing this forward. Um, and that's where my hope lies is yeah. It with our community. Um, so we're continuing to be done collaborating with one another and for other people to listen, to just like sit back and listen, um, [00:30:00] for the calls to action, to all be completed.
HALEY: There, there are big, there's a big, I guess, a laundry list or dreamless of stuff I would love to see happen, but the pessimist in me always takes over. But the one thing that I have no doubt that will happen is that community will keep fighting. I've always fought. They will continue to fight. Um, hopefully the government will also make the change, but the pessimists says no, but community, community will keep advocating for one another.