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As the community continues to grieve the loss of 215 children after an unmarked burial site was confirmed on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) Chief Byron Louis says it’s time to tear down colonial structures to make way for healing.
OKIB elected leadership is calling on the federal and provincial governments to remove and replace residential and day “school” buildings that continue to traumatize First Nations community members.
“Across Canada, due to lack of capital funding, residential schools, Indian day schools, churches and other monuments of oppression remain in Indigenous communities to serve as constant reminders of the colonial genocide committed by Canada,” says the statement released June 8.
Louis says these institutions and other “monuments of oppression” should be demolished and replaced with healing centres as a way to “decolonize community infrastructure.”
On OKIB’s land, two former “day schools” — where students experienced “poor treatment and abuse,” according to Louis’s statement — still stand. One now operates as the band office, and the other as an Elders’ gathering space, meaning many members must revisit painful memories in order to gain access to basic services.
“How can you actually ask our Elders who went there as students, to ask them to go into those places and to not be reminded of what had happened to them as children?” Louis says in a phone interview.
“What we’re looking for isn’t just to tear these buildings down but to actually replace them with buildings that are conducive to healing, as well as the intergenerational healing that will need to take place.”
The n’kmaplqs (top of the Okanagan Lake) people of OKIB belong to the Syilx Nation and they care for the lands in their ceremonial way as they have done since time immemorial.
Louis says after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, he is especially focused on healing, and the people of n’kmaplqs deserve to live without these structural reminders in the community.
“Canadians of Japanese descent are not expected to travel to the New Denver Internment Camp to receive government services,” Louis says in a statement.
“Jewish descendants of the victims of the Holocaust aren’t expected to visit the internment and extermination camps to apply for a business loan. For Indigenous people, we’ve been left with these scars on our land in the form of unhealthy and traumatizing buildings.”
Recasting ‘victims’ as warriors
“Indian day schools” were used by Canada to assimilate Indigenous children alongside residential schools and other church- and state-run institutions.
On OKIB land, the first “day school” — operated by the Catholic Church and funded by the federal government — opened in 1923, and was known as the Okanagan Day School. It operated until 1945 and was later turned into the OKIB Band Office.
The second “day school” to open in the community was the Six Mile Creek Day School, which operated from 1947 to 1968 and is now used as an Elders’ gathering place called New Horizons.
According to OKIB, students at these institutions endured abuse and cruel treatment.
“Students at the Six Mile School were forced … to kneel on their knuckles to learn mathematics and prayers for example,” the band’s news release says.
“Look at what we had to go through in the name of so-called western civilization, wiping out who we are, what we are, and how we think,” says Louis.
He says the children who were forced to attend these assimilation institutions are not to be looked at as “survivors” or “victims” — but rather as warriors.
There has been a “war against children,” he says. And this war has had many casualties and has been fought on different battlegrounds including residential and day “schools” and the foster care system.
An “estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were removed from their families, homes, languages, and lands” and placed in residential “schools,” according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) at the University of British Columbia. Today, Indigenous children are grossly overrepresented in the child-welfare system due to racist, colonial policies and practices.
He hopes to hold up the warriors in the “war on children,” those who went to residential schools — to remember them for allowing Syilx people to stand tall in who they are today.
He reminds the Syilx people that despite these atrocities they are still here and now is the time to reclaim at full force what’s been taken.
“These children that went to residential schools came back — to still be Syilx, to still be Okanagan,” he says.
‘You have no right to feed me, no matter how good the food is’
Canadians are the “beneficiaries of what was done,” says Louis, and they need to take accountability.
“It’s not just these buildings, it’s the continuing residue of what’s left,” Louis says.
“We don’t need a saviour,” Louis says. “You have no right to feed me, no matter how good the food is.”
Healing won’t be attained with a simple cheque, he says. What’s needed is meaningful action — support to tear down these former assimilation centres and replace them with something that will give life back to the people.
“They want to say sorry, but not make reparations. If you look at true reparation, you look at what was done in Germany: they were all given the opportunity to come back and rebuild their societies, their governments, everything, and they were given opportunities through the Marshall Plan,” he says. “Now ask yourself, “Where is our Marshall Plan?
“We need to stand up — our own people. We have everything we need,” Louis says, with passion in his voice. “The answer is not found in hate. We need to heal ourselves, and we need to heal ourselves for the right reasons.”
Louis shares that Syilx people have always been hard workers and they carry laws and stories that will help to guide them to their healing.
He then shares a small part of a Captikwl (oral storytelling law) teaching that he says he’s drawing upon in his plan to replace the colonial structures with healing centres:
Louis says Syilx people have all the teachings they need to move through these hard times and that reintegrating those stories and teachings back into the Syilx way of life is one way to reclaim the collective strength of the people.
“That’s why we need these places of healing where we can share these stories and give people back that identity of what they are and who they are — Syilx people,” he says.
Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.
EDITOR’S NOTE (June 11, 2021): Originally, this story said “grieve the loss of 215 children whose remains were recently uncovered,” but it was inaccurate to say the remains were “uncovered.” This was changed to “grieve the loss of 215 children after an unmarked burial site was confirmed.”