Don’t rush to raise the flag just yet

Hill Times September 20, 2021

It’s been four months since the news broke of 215 unmarked graves from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc at the former site of the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia. At least 751 unmarked graves were found by Cowessness in the Qu’Appelle Valley the following month in Saskatchewan, and 160 more on Kuper Island in British Columbia, and then another 182 at Cranbrook in British Columbia, and in Brandon, Man., and more. Last week the Snuneymuxw First Nation announced it will start a search for unmarked graves at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.

This is the next chapter of the story—Indian hospitals. We have heard about the residential schools, and now we will start to hear about the needless deaths and unmarked graves at the so-called hospitals. Class-action lawsuits have started, and the summary may be that the stories of survivors of these hospitals may be shocking. It’s part of Canada’s history and it will be told.

Canadian flags have been flying at half mast since the news of the unmarked graves at Kamloops. In the first few weeks, I was devastated every time I drove by a flag at half mast and routinely had to look away. I was brought to tears when driving by a church with its steps covered in little children’s shoes. Every image was a reminder of the longstanding human rights violations my community has endured.

And yet, we are still here.

The most surprising impact for me was the realization that Canada was rocked by the news. Canada was listening. Canadians were listening. Streets were filled with Canadians wearing their orange shirts out of respect. Virtually every national news outlet and many international outlets covered the story repeatedly, doing their best to cover the story with empathy and respect.

But then the Liberals dropped the election writ, which was a great way to avoid substantive discussions on the country’s responsibilities to Indigenous peoples after such damning evidence of human rights violations. Some parties are even trying to score political points on the flag at half mast.

Now politics is a pretty rough instrument, like a hammer, and there’s not much gentleness in that hammer. And when all one has is a hammer, everything is a nail to pound for points. Here’s another thought—we don’t want hammers.

Politics has no place in the country’s response to unmarked graves of children. It’s time for the politicians to put down their weapons and pick up coalition. We don’t have time for bickering and we don’t have patience for the upstaging. We need leaders who have the capacity and willingness to work together to find a way through this crisis, and, with humility, work towards reconciliation.

Some are saying it’s time to raise the flag, but it is a particularly hurtful thing to say, “Let’s raise them just because it’s been too long.” Please come up with a better reason than that. Some say, we have to raise it because we’re proud. Of all the tone deaf things to say as families are literally out marking fields with flags to show where the bodies lie. Every single MP, come Sept. 21, should be scheduling their first trip to the nearest residential school search for unmarked graves, and every single MP should be in an Indigenous community on Sept. 30.

Let us raise the flags on Sept. 30 to the sounds of First Nations and Inuit and Métis drums in a solemn ceremony of commitment to raising the voices of the children who were silenced for so long. Let us raise the flags, not in pride, but in humility that we have been given the opportunity to stand alongside the families of the lost children. Let us raise our gaze to look each other in the eye, and say we will always remember. On every following Sept. 30, let us lower the flag to show commitment to remembering that this country stood idly by while thousands of children died.