I wasn’t listening to the word “genocide” until now
We can’t say that the one thousand (and counting) unmarked children’s graves at former residential school grounds in Canada were a “discovery”—Indigenous people have been saying for generations that thousands of their children were forcibly taken and did not come home. It is also not new to hear the word “genocide” used to describe what happened to Indigenous people across North America. I have heard it spoken in sacred conversations of which I was permitted to be a part. I have heard it in reference to residential schools, to the violent and clearly documented project that the residential schools embodied: “to kill the Indian.” I have heard it on the news and in the historical accounts that we are only just beginning to lift up more widely. I have heard it in the Blanket Exercise, where we can viscerally see and experience the targeting and elimination of Indigenous people from this land.
And even with the widespread knowledge of those graves, even with the occasional reference to genocide, I wasn’t fully listening until now. A lot of us weren’t listening until now.
I have read any number of fiction and non-fiction accounts of World War 2. I have gone into the concentration camps through those stories. I have paid attention to the horrors of what was done in that other time and different place. So, too, I have read about and heard about the targeted elimination of the Tutsi in Rwanda and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. I have shuddered at the accounts of merciless and systematic killing that has gone on elsewhere.
But I have been so clouded by my own privilege as a white person living in Canada—so informed by my own experience of freedom and peace in this country—that I haven’t been able to hear that our country doesn’t just have a story like this too, but that our country is actually built on this story. Targeted, systemic violence; murder; and degradation of a particular segment of the population, simply on the basis of race and skin colour—it happened here too.
This is the kind of truth that is much easier to keep at arm’s length, to believe happens in other places and in other people’s history. Not here. Not us.
My own comfortable arm’s length has been challenged at a pace that I am not proud to admit. I have been involved for many years now in an initiative across our church to develop partnerships with Indigenous communities for the purpose of securing clean drinking water for all Canadians. I have participated in the national gatherings of our church (General Synod) for the last decade and have heard and seen in a variety of settings: the trauma; the poverty; and the lack of housing and clean water—all environmental factors where Indigenous leaders in our church are leading and ministering to their people. I have had the great blessing of walking in some small part with the Venerable Val Kerr (Archdeacon of Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous Ministries in the Diocese of Niagara), watching her and listening to her as she invites us with her strong and honest voice: to understand our history; to understand that we are still living with our history; and, to hear the resilience and the cry for justice in the voices of Indigenous people today.
And I still wasn’t fully understanding or accepting what has actually happened.
It’s the children who have undone me. It’s their story that no longer allows me to keep this story at bay. Like so many Canadians, I have been haunted and horrified by the front-and-centre reality that thousands upon thousands of children were ripped from their homes and from the arms of their loved ones with the express purpose of “solving a problem.” I knew that there was inexcusable and awful abuse that went on in those “schools”. That they were subjected to inhumane living conditions, I knew that as well. I knew that their names, language, hair, clothing and families were mercilessly cut away from them.
But then there are the bodies, dumped in the ground. It is the complete lack of dignity and care that was afforded them, even in death, that made me understand and accept a truth that I haven’t wanted to know.
“These were baptized children,” National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald shared in a recent meeting of Pimatiziwin Nipi (the Living Waters Group). “Even the theology of the church, even the basic understanding of our faith, that baptism makes us one in Christ, even that wasn’t enough to make these children human enough for the church people who ran these schools to see them deserving of a Christian burial.”
The archbishop spoke of the children’s bodies disposed of — not on consecrated ground, not within the dignity and care of the prayers of the church, but rather thrown out as the gone, the forgotten, the never-existed. Thrown out like they weren’t someone’s child. Like they weren’t a child that should have been loved and protected and honoured by all of us.
Archbishop Mark also spoke of resurrection:
“The power of Christ’s resurrection is now speaking prophetically through these children to show us that this was a genocide,” he shared.
“Children were herded by RCMP into places where they were decimated by plagues and poverty and hunger and abuse. The residue of this genocide is now being seen in these graves and calling attention to what happened. Evil cannot be hidden. Our task now is to listen.”
I have been too slow to listen. Many of us have been too slow to listen. The power of Christ’s resurrection sometimes works on a time scale that is agonizing and horrific. It should not have taken until now for us to hear how a whole people were targeted, killed off and thrown away. Meanwhile, so many of us have such an abundance of freedom and resources that we mostly take what we have for granted, hardly noticing the running water that we waste, treating our religious beliefs and our right to vote as nice personal options — not hard-won freedoms that we should not only value but relentlessly work to name and claim for others, too.
It shouldn’t have taken us until now to see the power of God’s love in these children. It shouldn’t have taken us until now to hear and treasure their voices. There is a kindness, an undeserved kindness in God’s relentless, and at times terrifying, faithfulness. There is a kindness in God still not letting us off the hook — giving us another chance to hear, to understand and to act.
Christ is lifting up the bodies and the voices of these children so that we can see and we can hear. This was a genocide. That reality is a truth that can’t be dismissed with questions of why people can’t just “get over it”. It is a truth with ingrained trauma which so clearly reverberates across generations, to the extent that none of us can say that we don’t bear responsibility today. It is upon us to respond to the anguish that of course still mars the First Peoples of Canada. This truth doesn’t just demand action, it also demands much more listening.
The truth of this genocide raises the question “where do we go from here?” Take this to heart—there is no easy path we can charge down in the hopes that simple and efficient solutions are right around the corner. The only way forward is to go painfully, slowly, attentively, prayerfully and with humility.
Let us hold space for Indigenous Peoples and grieve with them.
Let us listen as they discern the way forward.
Let us collectively stand alongside them as they seek action, and remain next to them in the times which follow.
In the relentless power of Christ’s resurrection and love, we have another chance: to hear the voice of those beautiful and beloved children; to treasure and honour them the way we should have always treasured and honoured them; and, to let them lead us on the path forward.