Like many others, my family and I participated in the Yellowknife march to commemorate the 215 children found buried in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. It must have been one of the largest public marches in the history of the NWT, easily approaching 1,000 people.
More notable than the great turnout was the diversity of the crowd. There were many familiar Indigenous leaders leading the march, followed by Elders, youth, and families – many of whom have relatives who were taken to residential school only to never return. The grace and inclusivity with which these leaders and elders addressed the march was amazing, when the pain and anger they were feeling must have been overwhelming.
In the crowd, I recognized people of African and southeast Asian descent. I saw new immigrants from eastern Europe and the Middle East. But perhaps the largest group of people taking part in the march were white people – those of us with roots in western European countries whose governments and religions were responsible for the colonization of this country, including putting in place the residential schools.
It was heartening to see all these people taking time out of their day to walk in solidarity, listen to impassioned speeches, and show their sympathies. But as the march wore on, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Is this it?” “Is this all we are gonna do? Are we all just gonna just go home back to our regular lives?”
Unacceptably, for most of us, the answer is yes. We will go back to our day to day, and at times we will remember these children and their families in our thoughts and prayers. This tragic discovery will become another footnote in our busy lives. This is the privilege of being able to simply go back to normal. But for those who survived these residential schools or have missing relatives that never came back, there is no respite. For those who suffered abuse, there is no forgetting. There is no peace. There has been no justice.
The time for our thoughts and prayers is over. Our sympathies will not compel the churches to release records so that families may finally learn what happened to their lost relatives. Our condolences won’t bring justice to the pedophiles and murderers who stalked many of our communities.
While reconciliation is a noble aspiration, it cannot happen without justice. Now is the time that we must collectively demand this justice. Some of the perpetrators of the worst crimes in our communities, in the guise of the church, walk free to this day. They are now old men and women, but nonetheless we must demand that they be punished for their crimes.
In many cases it may be that these criminals have died, never to be brought to justice in this world. Apologies are not enough – we must hold the institutions that sheltered and enabled these individuals accountable.
The calls for justice must come from more than Indigenous peoples – it should not only be their burden to bear. It is our collective responsibility as citizens of this place to echo and support these calls, to actively play our part in this reckoning. For most of us, this will be very uncomfortable to do. We may not know how to appropriately engage, what spaces we are welcome in, or to what level we should raise our voice.
But we must try, no matter how awkward first steps might be. It is certainly better than our silence.