Originally published as a column in the Armchair Mayor News on June 15, 2021.
The forest has stories to tell you if you happen to visit every now and then. As of late, the stories are sad, but that makes listening that much more important.
We took our youngest on a daytrip to Wells Grey Park this past weekend. On our way out of town we drove in silence past the crosses for the 215 children whose unmarked graves have been recently discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. There is deep sadness in each piece of clothing hanging by the side of the road, fluttering in the wind, and reminding us forever of all the lives that were violently taken away.
A recent story on CBC starts with what feels as close to a punch in the gut as possible, ‘During a 1937 outbreak of measles at the Kamloops residential school, a nurse gave student Mary Francois some Aspirin, mustard plasters and brandy after the girl fell ill on May 3.’
Words fail to describe what any parent feels if they try to imagine their own child being treated that way. One of those dresses fluttering on a cross by the side of the road as you drive by tells of that heartbreaking story. Plus 214 more like it.
That had been on my mind during the time we walked quietly through the forest, listening to the sounds of birds and the constant loud and yet soothing song of the river running alongside the trail we followed for a few hours. There were fallen birch trees with strips of white bark, rolled like the pages of books left behind by life itself, weathered and filled with stories.
The words of my friend Richard Wagamese came to mind, ‘They say we cast our stories on the skin of birch trees once, etching them there with the sharpened edge of a burnt stick or pigments formed of earth and rock and plant material that has never faded over time…’.
There are stories in the forest, and those stories are now needed more than ever because we have to bring history, the way it was, the way it unfolded, into full view. The forest is where there past and present meet and you get reminded of all the interrupted lives of children who never made it home, never roamed through wild lands as they should have. As they had been.
Too many people have said since the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves that they did not know of the horrors that took place in the residential schools. Too many said they never learned in their history class in school about the suffering of the Indigenous children (at least 150,000 of them) during the two centuries of cultural genocide, or the death of almost 6,000 of them, which might be higher yet as more of these dark times are being brought out to light.
In one of the history books we have at home, there are a few paragraphs, four to be precise, that tell of the residential schools. The author uses the word scandal and that is infuriating. Scandals are what you see in the pages of a newspaper describing the lives of various celebrities. Horror is the word that sadly, describes the reality of residential schools instead. And that’s only the history books that saves a small space, if any, for this extensive and dark time of cultural genocide.
There were people along the way who tried to use their position to expose the horrors that Indigenous children suffered in residential schools across Canada. One of them was Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada’s first chief officer of medical health, who in 1922 published a book titled ‘The story of a national crime’ regarding the atrocities he witnessed.
These horrors that were perpetrated against Indigenous people do not live in the past however. They are revealed nowadays, sadly, via reports of ‘widespread and insidious racism’ in healthcare against Indigenous people, whose health concerns are often not taken seriously; they are revealed through heartbreaking stories of abuse that Indigenous children continue to suffer while in foster care.
History can never be changed but learning what truly happened and what it meant for the people who continue to suffer today is essential. We should never have to hear anyone ever say, ‘I did not know.’ Not when that meant suffering and heartbreak, and trauma that has followed a peoples’ history since.
The stories that the forest carries within, in the solemn songs of rushing waters, in curls of birch bark and in the soft ground, they must be honored by all of us as we sit in silence and listen. We must listen, so we can learn, starting with the smallest circle of knowledge and growing from there.
‘This is how you change the world, the smallest circles first… That humble energy, the kind that says, ‘I will do what I can do right now in my own small way,’ creates a ripple effect on the world…’ (Richard Wagamese, One Drum: Stories and Ceremonies for a Planet)