As the revelations of the unmarked graves of children who attended residential schools continue to pour in I, like many Canadians, find myself in a state of blank horror. There is no way to dodge or intellectualize when faced with these facts. With mass graves we are very clearly talking about genocide. This form of burial indicates an utter lack of respect for the dead and also demonstrates a desire for secrecy.
In attempting to respond to these discoveries we should look for a guide in the years following the Holocaust. Germany has continually and publicly acknowledged its wrongdoing, memorialized, and made reparations. They have not retreated into denial or equivocation. Canada needs to do the same. Official statements will not suffice.
I propose that we establish a permanent memorial to those lost. While the actual spaces of the schools should also be maintained as sites of remembrance, there should be a structure built in Ottawa. This space would serve as a center for education, yes, but more importantly for ceremony. I can envision something like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington where the names of the victims are etched in stone. The ability of families to place their fingers on the names of their relatives has been one of the great contributions to healing of this memorial.
Sites such as Auschwitz and the Vietnam War Memorial have served a vital therapeutic function. They are physical spaces of remembering, grieving, and honoring. Because of this, millions have made their way to these places in an attempt to express the inexpressible. Jewish visitors can say traditional prayers for the dead and those who are not from a Jewish background can light candles or simply bear witness.
This proposed memorial site would offer a focal point for the recognition of these historical events and their ongoing impact. Of course this site should be built according to the wishes and specifications of First Nations and run according to their spiritual and cultural protocols.
Why a place for ceremony? In cases like this words often make the situation worse. What can anyone possibly say about the fact that many families were never able to give their children a proper burial? That these children were treated brutally in concentration camp-like conditions and died far from their homes and families?
Being unable to properly grieve the dead is psychologically devastating. In my hometown of North Bay, Ontario, spontaneous memorials to the children have appeared on the steps of the local Catholic Church in the past month. These shoes are mute testimony to lives extinguished. For evil of this magnitude, there needs to be physical expression and recognition. Without proper forms of commemoration and mourning, we are stuck in a kind of limbo unable to move forward.
While a permanent memorial site will take time as an immediate action I call on Canadians to organize commemorations, vigils, and ceremonies in their communities. As a nation, we need to face our past head-on and the ways in which colonization and land theft continue to shape our country.
I also call on the leaders of all political parties to organize a ceremony in Ottawa, led by Indigenous communities, in which we acknowledge every life lost in residential schools. We should be lighting sage, candles, and ceremonial fires. We should be reading the names of these children aloud. We are being called to account by the children found in these graves and how we answer will determine who we are as a country.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.