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Mass grave discovery cuts deep

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Rudy Kelly on trauma, the horror of children removed from their families, and why nobody can or should “get over it” anytime soon.

Before I continue with my “On the write road” series, I felt I needed to speak to the announcement of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school site in Kamloops.

It is estimated that, of the 150,000 indigenous kids who were forced into these schools, some 4,100 never returned to their families and died in them. This, along with the “60s scoop,” in which indigenous kids were removed from their parents by social services (government believed it was better to remove a child rather than provide a community and its parents with resources and support), created long-term trauma that continues to run through the generations.

I know, I know: beating the “Indian out of the Indian” was the only way to assimilate us into the superior white society. And it’s, well, just what conquerors do. It’s standard practice for the “winners” (as if there was an actual declared war). Get over it.

Get over it. I’m not a social worker but I’m pretty sure there is no worse response to victims of loss and trauma.

This horrible discovery opens old wounds for many people. It makes them look at scars and remember. It even makes some feel lucky, because they got out, they made it home. That is not what good fortune should look like.

I had gotten kind of numbed by all this stuff, but Thursday’s announcement got to me. I felt an unease beyond just the fact of those lives taken and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, yesterday, it struck me: many of those kids would have been my peers. They would have been about the same age as me.

We trick ourselves about age. I am 59 but I don’t feel it. I remember men in their late 50s when I was a kid and they seemed really old! That’s because, normally, our mind doesn’t pay as big a toll as our bodies. I still believe that I can stretch a double into a triple or make a fully extended catch in football. It feels that way – just like residential schools feel like ancient history.

But not much time has passed. I know many people who went to the schools. I also know some of the people who watched helplessly as their kids were taken. And those people are a largely overlooked group even though their trauma was considerable too. We rarely talk about that, the communities that became, largely, childless.

Imagine people coming into your community and forcibly taking away most of the children. The phrase about it taking a village to raise a child doesn’t apply to any community more than it does to Indigenous communities. Grandparents and, particularly, aunts and uncles, play a huge role in raising children. Many virtually adopt kids if their kids or nieces/nephews were too young or overwhelmed by the task.

So, for every kid removed from a community there was a large ripple effect, extending well beyond immediate family. Imagine the immensity of that void, when most of the kids just … go away. Whole communities were depressed. Is it any wonder how alcohol, drugs and violence took hold in most of them, especially in those that never got to see their kids again?

Simple chance of circumstances spared me, although I saw and felt the consequences of the schools, of the racism, from my friends and family who weren’t so lucky. The effects trickled down and still do. Anger and shame feel like a part of our DNA.

So, no, we will not get over it – not now or any time in the near future. Because the past is still very much in the rear-view mirror. And some things are closer than they appear.

Rudy Kelly is a Tsimshian writer in Prince Rupert, BC. The first indigenous graduate of the Mount Royal College Journalism Program in 1988, he has written 10 plays and his first novel, ALL NATIVE, was published last year.

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