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I’ve always been a proud and resolute Canadian, but right now I’m feeling ashamed. The once lustrous silver lining of this country has become stained and tarnished by time and history. By a heavy hand brought down upon innocents. By blood and tears.

By mistakes.

Perhaps in the COVID age when our eyes, ears, and sometimes now-fragile attention spans are used to being bombarded by the sheer scale of numbers in the tens of thousands, or even millions, this could be deemed a paltry and insignificant number. Inconspicuous enough to belie the terrible truth it signifies, and the tally of those same innocents it counts. The tally of mistakes.

All 966 of them, so far.

Why so far? Sadly, that number will undoubtedly increase, leaving us reeling no less from what it represents than from the unfathomable numbers of cases, suffering, and deaths invading our weary senses every day during a global pandemic. A minuscule total in comparison, yet carrying the same amount of pain. A reminder of what we’ve done, of what we’ve lost, of what we tried to leave behind. And, as we so desperately reach out ahead of ourselves to the future to try and latch onto some semblance of normality, with tired fingers and bruised, heavy hearts, this number serves us a brutal reminder that our old normal should never be viewed through rose tinted glasses, lest they too hide the blood on our collective hands.

Between the provinces of British Columbia (215) and Saskatchewan (751), that is the total current number of unmarked graves found near former residential schools.

966 unmarked graves. 966 deaths never accounted for. 966 innocents that were silenced and, apparently, erased from knowledge and existence. Or at least, that was the intention.

966 terrible, heartbreaking mistakes.

In both cases these residential schools were where First Nations children were sent to be assimilated into our culture, while simultaneously being ripped away from their own. All of this so they could fit into our society, or at least what the mould of our society dictated should be the case. As if their own life they were already living was deemed flawed and unworthy, requiring forceful reconstruction into our “perfect” ideals. Stripping these children of everything that made them unique and special and loved by their families, and replacing it with our clothing, our mannerisms, our attitudes, and even our beliefs. A cookie cutter residential school system designed for quick adoption of these children into our society, indistinguishable from the rest.

The 215 graves at the site in British Columbia have been determined to be all children, while the 751 in Saskatchewan may also include adults. Nothing about that makes this any better obviously. The fact that some of those graves may not be children doesn’t become a parachute that somehow cushions the resulting free fall of emotions this news has wrought. Sadly, it’s just a bandage barely covering this festering wound of neglect and human indignity. Crimes committed against First Nations children and their loved ones, all in the name of assimilation and progress. There’s no doubt more grave sites will be uncovered at former residential schools across the country, and our federal government has already voted to fund and begin the search in earnest.

One must wonder what they were like. What were their dreams and aspirations? What made them smile and laugh, and what made them cry? What did they want to be, or do, or have when they grew up? Are these merely the things these children used to feel before they were sent away, or were they still holding onto them the whole time? Grasping at the memories of the world they once knew to cover up the fear and feelings of the one they were suddenly in. Burying their own truths deep within themselves, wrapped inside the safety of their own secret emotional blanket in the hopes this was perhaps just a passing storm.

The storm didn’t pass.

It engulfed them.

966 voices, silenced and buried by the dark truths of history.

Never honoured.

Never recognized.

And by the people that dug those graves?

Most likely, never remembered.

History has proven time and again that silence is the vicious cold-hearted enemy of progress, and as Winston Churchill was so apt to remind us, those lessons we fail to learn from are doomed to repeat themselves. Those children deserve better. Those children deserved better. A new normal is on the horizon, but it needs to be one that promotes hope and prosperity, not despair and inequality. We need to do more than just offer thoughts and prayers and empty acknowledgement of the past while slipping back to the convenient excuses that provide only lip service to our mistakes, and then subtly sweep them under the proverbial rug with the rest of history’s failures. We need to reflect upon these dark and horrible truths that cost the lives of countless innocent children. We need to reconcile our actions of the past, and allow ourselves to never forget what happened.

We can’t be silent.

966 Indigenous children were silenced.

Those children had their voices taken away.

We must give them a voice.

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