Current Problems

Commemoration (79-83)

This should be a day when Canada rededicates itself to seeking justice

September 30, 2023
Broken and neglected grave markers at a cemetery in Mission, B.C., near the site of a former residential school. Ethan Cairns

Toronto Star: “Hubert O’Connor: Child Molester.” That’s how the Victoria Times Colonist headlined the obituary for Catholic bishop Hubert O’Connor.

He worked at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., where he began a career as a serial rapist of young Indigenous girls. In 1996, he became the highest ranking Catholic official in the world to be convicted of a crime.

In the city of Mission, on a green hill overlooking the Fraser River, is a small cemetery surrounded by an iron fence. At the centre of rows of immaculate white graves is “Most Reverend Hubert O’Connor, OMI, Bishop Emeritus of Prince George.”

This cemetery is on the grounds of the first St. Mary’s Residential School (its replacement, built by the feds, is a few hundred metres away). Indigenous children, primarily from the Sto:lo people, who live along the Fraser Valley (including members of my family), attended for more than a century — it predates Confederation.

Down the green from the Bishop are rows of broken metal, chipped stone and stumps where graves once were. Leaning against a tree are the tops of some broken-off grave markers. Most are missing their names.

We have some idea of whose ruined graves these are. Not all were Indigenous or wards of the residential school — for those who were, the names of the dead were recorded by the National Centre for Truth And Reconciliation in its graves registry. Those surnames include Fidele, Mallaway, Peters — each wellknown names to Sto:lo people. Further down the list is a Leon, the family that includes my sister-inlaw. We don’t know which broken stump or rough patch of grass is the grave of Lloyd Leon or Clara Mae Rush, or one child listed only as “Mary Jane Indian.” (There are likely more graves here, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.)

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation commemorations are often dominated by talk of the graves. And it is clear why: the loss of so many children, killed as part of a crime against humanity, shocks the soul. Just how these graves were lost isn’t often spoken of — but it is apparent here: it’s because of neglect and indifference.

These children died because Canada neglected them, and because of indifference, these graves melted away into the grass in the shadow of the perfectly maintained grave of a convicted child molester.

The residential school is gone now; only the foundations and a few pieces of stone walls remain. Each is marked with a plaque — this one was a workshop, that one a kitchen.

Such terrible things were done at this place. Yet as I stand on these grounds, a children’s fair has been set up among the ruins. There’s a bouncy castle, face-painting booths, toys, games, food and kids playing everywhere.

As a metaphor for how most Canadians mark this day, it’s almost too on the nose.

The desecration of this place, and maybe of this day, isn’t a product of ignorance. People know what this place is, and what happened where these buildings stood. The local museum has set up a fun treasure hunt — so in the presence of the dead, in the shadow of a child molester, non-Indigenous children presumably mark off station five, the girls’ dorm, and move along.

I took pictures of these graves on June 4, 2022. Moments before I did, I found myself at the highway entrance to the school, twisting out of the way to escape an enraged truck driver. I was with possibly 100 people, some elderly, one a child in a wheelchair. We were entering the old school grounds when he drove through the crowd, hit three people, stopped in front of me, shouted some insults, laughed and drove on.

Our march was to raise awareness of the schools and honour the dead. With the orange flags and the signs, he couldn’t have been ignorant of what he was driving through.

That’s the other metaphor for Truth and Reconciliation Day. While one large group of people is indifferent and parties the day away, another group, like this man, wants to smash it all and laugh about it. It took a lot of effort on our part to get the police to investigate. A trial begins in March.

People like the driver are too numerous to count.

Last week, the Sto:lo nation released a report, identifying the total number dead at the local residential schools and Indian Hospitals. At St. Mary’s, it was 20 dead in their initial survey — it will grow as they move further back in time and gain access to more records.

When the numbers came out, the denialists came out in full force to mock and deny them.

I don’t know the reality of other schools, but I know St. Mary’s. The missing graves? You can see them.

And not just the ones surrounded by the iron fence, but beyond the gates of the cemetery there were more — said to be for unbaptized children. They appear in old photos and stretch out over what’s now a highway embankment.

We don’t know the number of graves there. But maybe talk of numbers isn’t the right thing to do today anyway — or not exclusively these numbers.

The numbers that matter are those given to children when they entered the schools and had their names taken away. Tens of thousands of people alive in Canada right now had those numbers put on them in place of their identities. Some were O’Connor’s victims, others victims of 5,300 other people whom the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified as abusers. Ottawa knows who and where they are. They spent $1.5 million tracking them down. The vast majority walk free today. Those are numbers that we can demand our government do something about.

There are many in this country who seem to use the rising total of graves found to objectify those who died at residential schools — reducing them, again, to a number. Focusing on graves puts this all permanently in the past. That is easier for Canadians than dealing with the living victims, and living perpetrators.

The convictions registered against O’Connor were lost to appeals. The Crown declined to pursue a third trial after he made a non-specific apology. In 2021, 14 years after his death, another of his victims came forward and launched a lawsuit against the church. And that may be another metaphor for Truth and Reconciliation Day — and I think the best one.

This should be a day when Canada rededicates itself to seeking justice. It should be a day when we speak up to force the government and church to release documents, to prosecute abusers, to jail them and to hound them to their deaths and beyond for their crimes. It’s a day to be angry, not just about the past, but about the people who abused children, the people who enabled it, the people who honour it and the people who deny any of it ever happened.

It’s not called National Forgiveness Day.

ROBERT JAGO, Special to the Star