Fort Smith residents report being chased away for trying to pay their respects to the 215 children found at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
Briann Debbie Gagnon said when she went to place shoes on the steps of the Catholic Church a man who appeared to be watching nearby told her to put the shoes back in her vehicle. The man complained to Gagnon about having to clean up after “the drunks that hang out there,” and argued about who would clean the shoes up afterwards. Gagnon said she would be happy to later take the shoes off the church steps in order to honour the children found on residential school grounds.
“I never thought I’d ever see this type of ignorance or behavior from someone,” Gagnon said, “when we should all be uniting together and healing.”
Gagnon tried to give the man her contact information to confirm she would pick up the shows in a few days but the man proceeded to throw the shoes in the garbage.
As a family member of residential school survivors Gagnon said the man’s actions were powerful. “Racism is and has been very much alive,” she said.
“This type of behavior makes it so no one can move forward and start healing.”
Father Cornerius Ngureukwem is the priest at the Fort Smith Catholic Church.
When he became aware of what had happened he said he retrieved the shoes from the garbage and re-placed them on the steps. He’s apologized to all who have reached out on the incident and said he would be holding a mass in the children’s honour on Tuesday night.
“It’s a painful thing that happened and we really need to feel sorry about what’s going on,” he said, adding that shoes, toys and teddy bears are continuing to adorn the church steps following the incident on June 1.
Ann Lepine, a resident of Fort Smith, called the events “disturbing” and “disheartening.”
“Everything is rectified now, but the fact that someone did this is wrong,” she said.
Lepine reiterated the profound impact that residential schools continue to have on the country and on Fort Smith, which has a mostly Indigenous population.
“It’s so disheartening that aboriginal people are still dealing with stuff like that,” she said.
“How could you do that to a population, a big population of Canada, mourning the loss of these 215 kids? They could have been someone’s aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, Kokum, Nimosom. They had families.”