What I told my child about the Kamloops graves—to honour the 215

An Indigenous mother describes the exhaustion of hearing about residential school trauma, and her determination to share those stories with the next generation

Tenille Campbell
The memorial outside St Paul’s cathedral in Saskatoon. (Tenille Campbell/ Sweet Moon Photography)

The memorial outside St Paul’s cathedral in Saskatoon. (Tenille Campbell/ Sweet Moon Photography)

Tenille Campbell is a Dene-Métis photographer and writer from the English River First Nation in Saskatchewan. She is based in Saskatoon.

Last week, when I first heard about the mass burial where 215 children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., I skimmed the article, taking note of who and where, how and when. I sighed deeply, shaking my head, and then read the next story.

That sounds callous and I hesitate to even mention it, but trauma is not new to Indigenous people, and sometimes it’s hard to endure yet another story. This is our reality.

But as the news was picked up, appearing in hundreds and thousands of social feeds, I realized I would have to talk with my daughter—again—about a trauma that she would hear about, be it from a misinformed classmate or on the news.

I picked up Aerie from a sleepover Sunday morning, and we sat in the car. I told her about the 215 children found, and what that meant. I told her about the many residential schools that operated in Canada, and how the last one only closed in 1996. I told her about the residential school that was on our reserve, and how her Papa had attended, and when it had been torn down.

I told her about the first time I heard stories of unmarked graves, of babies being buried, and how I didn’t believe it. I was quite young, younger than her. I was ignorant, then. And I didn’t want her to grow up ignorant in this world, so even though these stories are hard to hear, hard to feel, it’s important we honour them. That we witness them.

She was quiet, and I wiped my eyes. I didn’t even realize I was crying. “Are you sad because this could have happened to Papa?” I nodded, knowing Aerie has grieved for her Papa ever since she found out about him attending. Papa is alive and well, but her heart still hurts for him. Every Sept. 30, as swarms of classmates wear orange and listen to stories of residential schools as part of the past, Aerie sits in that space of living history, the granddaughter of a residential school survivor. She understands so much, but she still can’t comprehend why people would steal children from their homes and families.

While I held her warm hand in mine, I explained how there was a call in for people to bring shoes, to represent the children stolen, and she nodded.

We went home and she came out of her room with the shiniest, blingiest gold shoes in her collection, saying: “I think a little girl would have liked these.”

Then we stood witness under a hot sun, listening to a tiny, powerful child sing at the big drum, on the steps of St. Paul’s Catholic Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon. A friend I hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic came over to me, wrapping an arm around me. No words were needed in that moment. Grief is sometimes silent, only shown in a mutual deep breath.

We showed Aerie how to smudge her gold shoes and where to place them, amidst the growing pile.

We let the sun burn on our shoulders, silent, present.

I am exhausted, so tired of having to explain to my nine-year-old daughter the atrocities of the past—and the present—that happen to Indigenous people. I am tired of watching the light in her eyes die out every time she comes to the realization that people hate us because of who we are, what we represent.

The pride in knowing our roots and our history and where we come from is always in direct conflict with ideas of the Canadian history shown in textbooks, and explaining the term genocide and how it applies to her, to us, is a soul-wearying moment.

I’m tired.

But I’m tired within my community, and I’m grateful for that. For the hugs. For the texts. For the messages. For the songs sent. For the love felt. I’m not alone in my grief, and I see you all.

Fam, be gentle with yourself.

And for my non-Indig readers, consider donating to the Residential School Survivor Society.

If you are unable to do so, please educate yourself by reading books by Indigenous authors both about residential school, but also, about Indigenous joy. Understand that yes, residential school happened, and we are still processing the effects of that today, and that we are more than just resilient, we are more that just survivors.

We are complex, diverse, creative and strong. Watch the movies—by Indigenous producers and directors—about our stories and our lives. Go out of your way to support Indigenous businesses and startups. Listen to the many podcasts out there by Indigenous creators on matriarchs, on love, on relations.

We still mourn, but as the initial shock passes, I can only hope that my non-Indig readers and community continue to seek systematic change, for themselves and with us, collectively.