Uncovered: The Death of Innocents

Residential School - In Thunder Bay
Residential School - In Thunder Bay

By Beverly Sabourin and Peter Globensky

Children's Shoes
Children’s Shoes at Budapest Memorial

WINNIPEG – We were strolling the Danube promenade in Budapest when we came upon them. The day had been a lovely one – warm temperatures, a slight breeze off the river, fluffy clouds playing hide-and-seek with the late afternoon sun. We were alone on our saunter until some 20 metres ahead of us we saw a number of people who had gathered in small groups looking down on what appeared to be a long row of cast iron shoes placed on the concrete embankment level to and adjacent to the walkway. Some were placing flowers there. Others, heads bowed, hands covering their mouths appeared transfixed and lost in thought. When we came upon the memorial we were stunned in our disbelief. The memorial plaque read: “To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”

The Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist government, dutiful henchmen of the German Nazis and equally reprehensible would line-up Jewish children, women and men on the embankment, shoot them and watch gleefully as they fell into the river. The images, especially of the children’s shoes beggared belief but beyond that it was a public acknowledgment by Hungarians of what their own government had done to their fellow citizens.

How remarkable that the dozens of heart-wrenching memorials which have spontaneously appeared on the steps of legislatures and churches across the country, most consisting of 215 children’s shoes, would remind us of the horrors we encountered in Budapest. There are few damning words that have not already been spoken and written about the monstrous tragedy of discovering the unmarked graves of over two hundred children at the Kamloops residential school. Children lost in the loneliness of dying alone, their bodies disposed of, literally covered-up like so much embarrassing chattel, their parents left to grieve in the never-ending wallow of uncertainty and loss. The complicity of a racist government hell-bent on solving “the Indian problem by taking the Indian out of the child” and the supposedly “Christian” church communities only to willing to their bidding represent one of the darkest and most shameful periods of the disgraceful relationship Indigenous people have been forced to endure by their “founders”.

One of the many recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which this Federal government has ignored (as in, “we reman in consultation with Indigenous communities on the best way forward”) was to provide the means and resources to uncover other mass graves of children on the properties of the 132-plus residential schools across the country. Without claiming that its investigation was exhaustive, the TRC has estimated that over 3,200 children died in the custody of their keepers. This recommendation most certainly does not deserve to be buried along with the countless dozens of Indigenous children!

Canadians are not that naïve about their politics. We all know that one of the most effective ways of getting a disturbing issue off the front pages of the media is to establish a Royal Commission or a Committee of Notables “to examine the issues and present recommendations”. These issues are often like meteorites blazing across the midnight sky until they disappear from sight and mind into another hidden corner of the universe. On the issue of these dead but not forgotten children, these shooting stars continue to blaze and until the media relegates the on-going story to its back pages, now is the opportunity to magnify the blaze.

It is time to demand that the federal government provide all the necessary resources and capital equipment to leave no stone, no weed-filled back lot, no paved subdivision, no mall unturned until Canada can account for the location of every unmarked, covered-up residential school cemetery in the country and the children who lie there. Can we abide 300 Tombs of the Unknown Child? Can we do no less?

It is no longer enough for Canadians to lament and proffer the lame excuse, “this was not me; I did not do this. It was done over fifty years ago”. There is no such thing as a Canadian without history. Ancestral or not, we all bear the responsibility and the burden of this shame. When then National Chief Phil Fontaine fought for and secured the formal apology of the Federal government for its role in the residential schools’ fiasco and set in motion the structure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission thirteen years ago, there was no turning our collective backs on these dishonourable and murderous chapters of our history. On behalf of all of its people, the German government acknowledged and apologized for its role and the role of its people in the genocide of Jews in WWII. That recognition began a healing process and for our genocidal actions we can do no less.

Beverly Sabourin, retired as the Vice-Provost of Indigenous Initiatives at Lakehead University, and is a member of the Pic Mobert Ojibwe. Peter Globensky is a former senior policy advisor on Indigenous Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister. They invite your comments at basa1@shaw.ca

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