Until recently, I was very proud to say I was born and raised in Kamloops (Brocklehurst, actually) in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as the child of immigrants from Rumania.
We were part of the batch of farming families brought over by BC Fruitlands in 1930, all grateful to have a chance to start a new life in a place of peace and plenty. Even though I no longer live in Kamloops, it is still home to me.
Or, at least, it was.
These days, I’m profoundly ashamed to admit that while growing up in the place I loved, I knew nothing at all about what was going on across the river in the shadow of Mt. Peter and Mt. Paul. I am ashamed to say I never gave a serious thought to the people there. They might as well have been in a foreign country. And for all the notice we gave them as a community, I guess they were.
All I remember of these children is that they always took first prize in the yearly school drama festival held uptown. They were a formidable force to come up against in the oral/spoken poem category. They would silently appear, a uniformly well-dressed, well-behaved group, shepherded by stern-looking nuns in black robes and white head pieces.
As soon as they showed up, we knew our little rag-tag group from the little two-room school with the broken swings and no indoor plumbing didn’t have a chance. Not that we begrudged them for it. They just seemed so perfectly groomed and dressed and behaved — and they delivered their pieces so flawlessly that we were humbled in their presence.
Afterwards, they’d leave with their well-deserved awards and that would be it for another year. How I wish now that we had known more about what they were forced to endure.
It seems life has offered me another chance, though, as three of our grandchildren have Indigenous heritage through their mother. And we have the opportunity — and impetuous — to learn about and try to understand life today (and in the past) from an Indigenous point of view. Thankfully, my wonderful daughter-in-law is patiently willing to help me grow in that area. Her paternal great-grandmother was a residential school survivor from Alert Bay.
She tells me to not let shame and guilt crush us, but to be open to listening and learning and supporting others in their struggles to be heard and recognized as authentic.
My daughter-in-law keeps telling me that, as children, we were not responsible for these crimes against the Indigenous peoples. We were only allowed to see and know what the powers in charge wanted us to see and know. Still, it is hard to conceive of the unacceptable attitudes and beliefs that formed the policies that led to such horrid treatment of fellow human beings.
And she gently reminds me that, now that we do have an inkling of what went on, we can all do our best to help bring to light the full truth of what really happened to these Indigenous people, these children. We can each do what we can — not out of guilt, but out of love and concern and a belief that we are all equal, regardless of our race or culture.
No more fancy words and politically correct gestures. No more hidden records and half-hearted offers of help, begrudgingly given only because we are forced to by court orders or peer pressure. No more plugging our ears or looking the other way. No more silence when we should be speaking up for each other.
As individuals, and as a nation, we’ve got a chance to listen, learn, support and right some wrongs here. I do hope we don’t blow it this time.
Sharon Eppler Wetselaar