As a young teacher, I organized and planned international travel for the students at my school. My first international trip was to China in 1989, mere weeks before the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. In subsequent years, I travelled with my students several times, visiting South-East Asia, England, and the Mediterranean. And as we travelled, we were readily identified and welcomed as a group of Canadian students by the colours we flew proudly on our backpacks and our baggage.
A stop in the itinerary of our Mediterranean journey was Jerusalem, Israel. With only 48 hours to learn all we could of this country, it was a whirlwind of experience that cannot be recounted in a few paragraphs. However, three moments will forever stay with me, each of them lived at Yad Vashem.
The first is called the Children’s Memorial. It is hard to describe, and it is even more difficult to convey its profound impact. Imagine a bridge through a pitch black tunnel. Through pin-hole lights and reflections, the flickering of thousands upon thousands of lights plays across those who walk this bridge in silence. And as visitors walk through this galaxy, name after name after name is quietly uttered into the void.
The second moment that lives with me was spent in the Hall of Remembrance. This structure houses a flame which shall burn eternally, ringed in the mosaic floor by the names of the most infamous sites of killing and extermination, which serve to symbolize the hundreds of such locations. The Hall is a place of reverence and is the final resting place of an unknown number of victims.
The third and most painful moment emerged in an artifact.
It was a single shoe. It had likely belonged to a child of about three years of age. At least, that is the image captured and held in my mind, a memory more than thirty years old. In the way that memory can, the details of my recollection may be transformed by time, but what remains true are the impressions and feelings evoked by this shoe.
The shoe was mounted for display upon a small pedestal which itself sat on a table surface. The tabletop display was fully enclosed in glass so that it could be viewed from all sides. The shoe was old, and had signs of wear. The laces were loose, and the tongue of the shoe was pulled back as if to accommodate a little foot… one foot to represent more than one million. This tiny, fragile shoe left an indelible stamp of horror, pain, and sorrow. This single shoe made concrete the suffering of one sweet life. An unimaginable atrocity had been composed into something a mind can comprehend: one beautiful child, denied life and humanity.
Shoes carry a weighty symbolism. Perhaps the weight comes from the invitation to walk in them, to step inside and imagine the suffering lived or the life denied. The empty shoes of children symbolize a journey cut short with sudden departure, suggesting footprints left behind on the land to mark their passage. They stand in place, holding space for a precious life that should have been protected and treasured. This week, 215 empty pairs of shoes appeared throughout our land, holding space at the steps of government houses and at public galleries. The child’s shoe in Jerusalem moved within me a deep sorrow; the empty shoes standing vigil on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery left me numb and inarticulate. The emotion I feel is beyond shame, and has only been deepened by the discovery that the children’s shoes holding space at the BC Legislature had been removed, likened to the remnants of a protest.
When I visited Israel in my young adult life, I did not know what a residential school was, nor what had happened within them. Mass graves and somber memorials were found in other countries, ones to which Canadians travelled. As I travelled the world with Indigenous students from my own hometown, grieving the inhumanity of other nations, I could not have imagined a day in the future when Canadian flags would be lowered to half-mast… a day that confirmed long-held suspicions, and a mass grave that challenged a national identity and exposed an undeniable truth. Can there be any atonement when compassion afforded one people is denied to another? I do not know. But what is certain is that there can be no reconciliation without the truth, the full truth. And that truth must be owned: Canada is home to mass graves.
In the days since the discovery in Kamloops, I have heard voices speaking defensively, claiming “I didn’t do this thing!” These speakers do not understand the nature of their responsibility in the light of knowledge. And we may anticipate greater knowledge as more discoveries at the sites of other residential schools come into that light. With this revealed truth, with this knowledge, comes a responsibility to act. We have 94 Calls to Action: I will end this week with number 75.
We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.
I have sent a letter on behalf of the BCPVPA and our members to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; the Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services; the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations; and the Honourable David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada that expresses our Association’s and members’ support of Call to Action number 75. As we all expect to be accountable, so do we expect accountability.
I hope to travel the world again one day. There is optimism that this day may be soon. When I do step out on a journey beyond our land, I will choose to fly our colours on my baggage. I will do so understanding that the Maple Leaf will evoke a different international response, and I will uphold my responsibility to the true story of our nation.