Celia Haig-Brown is the author of Tsqelmucwílc: The Kamloops Indian Residential School – Resistance and a Reckoning. Her other books include Taking Control: Power and Contradiction in First Nations Adult Education and With Good Intentions: Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal Relations in Colonial Canada. She is a professor at York University.
In 1976, I began work as the co-ordinator of the Kamloops Centre of the University of British Columbia’s Native Indian Teacher Education Program. Ironically, the offices and classrooms were based in the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS). It was ironic because even then, most of the aspiring elementary-teacher candidates had either attended, or had relatives and friends who had attended, this school in its heyday.
The work of educating teachers began my thorough immersion in the continuing effects of Canadian schooling on Indigenous students. I heard the stories people told. I saw the look in the eyes of a prospective student during her entrance interview: “My bed was under that window.”
I pondered why people whose schooling had been so fraught with pain and humiliation now turned to schools and teaching careers as a way to move forward. Out of the everyday relationships with the students, their families and Secwépemc colleagues working in those same KIRS buildings – in curriculum development, tribal council business, fisheries and more – my research question formed.
In 1988, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School, my master’s thesis, was published as a book, despite the skepticism of some acquisition editors. It was a story of cultural invasion and Indigenous resistance based in firsthand experiences of the KIRS, told by those who survived the assimilationist agenda and the cruelty that so often accompanied it. The book celebrated strength even as it documented horrors.
Since then, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and innumerable Indigenous artists, authors, storytellers and survivors added to, and reinforced, the stories I was told. They took the time to circle back to what was and, through their experiences, teach those of us who were ready to listen.
Then came May, 2021, and what Secwépemc call Le Estcwicwéy̓ (The Missing) – the recognition of unmarked burial sites at KIRS. Suddenly, many people who had shut their ears and looked away actually looked back and imagined what had happened. Human remains, lying nameless under the ground: Could these be the children who never came home and who remain unaccounted for?
Across the country and into the world where the news travelled, parents held their children close and tried not to imagine having them wrested from their arms, their lives and their communities, never to return. Conversations multiplied: On the Toronto street where I live, I eavesdropped on a discussion between a young man and an older man talking about residential schools as if they had never heard of them before.
Since then, even as the numbers of unmarked graves mounted at the sites of several former residential schools across the country, I’ve heard a recurring statement that it’s “time to move on.” The problem is that moving on in any good way, in a thoughtful way, requires more than acknowledgment and apologies.
Canada: It’s time to face our truth. Our history continues to play out in all our lives every day, whether we care to notice or not. Privilege continues to beget privilege. And we privileged often refuse to notice how it serves us. Why would we want to circle back to the truths, the foundations, of our lives as Canadians? Why does our common history create such fear in people?
Not long after the graves were acknowledged, I received a call from Randy Fred, my original publisher, and a Nuu Chah Nulth survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School. His provocative message: It’s time we revisited Resistance and Renewal. It’s time we circled back to that text as a way to think about where we are now, where we want to go, and how we can contribute to the productive conversation that will allow us to move forward.
My friend and colleague Garry Gottfriedson of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc has given readers the gift of the word Tsqelmucwílc, which we used in the title of the updated version of Resistance and Renewal. It translates loosely as, “We become human again.” We circle back, we recognize the dehumanizing that came with colonization. And in telling the stories of the schools, land grabs and cultural genocide, the process of rehumanizing, of moving forward, becomes possible.
If we Canadians – whoever chooses to include themselves in that “we” – want to find a way to move on honestly from our checkered past, we can continuously circle back to our origins in these long-occupied Indigenous territories. What went on in the name of civilizing and Christianizing Indigenous peoples dehumanized as the force of settler colonization disrupted and denigrated entire cultures. We can listen to the word Tsqelmucwílc and work to fully realize its meaning.
Those who hope we can just forget and “move on” may choose temporary oblivion, but Canada’s efforts to consign Indigenous peoples and ways of life to the past have never succeeded. Always remembering – as my Secwépemc colleague Colleen Seymour signs her messages – Indigenous lawyers, professors, doctors, artists and everyday people are leading the way. They know their histories and they know their rights. They have the stamina to stay focused on the challenges they face.
Now is the opportunity to think and act together, to circle back to Indigenous knowledges, to the juggernaut of colonization, to our shared histories, to create the space and time to imagine a healthy future together for all.