Canada held a memorial day on Monday, not in solidarity with Americans, but with 215 children who died without a memorial.
Three days after the horrifying discovery of children’s remains outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., the country feels on the verge of an important moment — one that could punch through complacency in a way that reports, inquiries and “calls for action” have not.
In Canada’s long conversation over Indigenous truth and reconciliation, the discovery of these children’s bodies inscribes a brutal, indelible entry in the “truth” part of the ledger.
The very lack of a memorial is what promises to seal this discovery in the nation’s memory — the image as hard to sweep away as the sight of a young refugee child’s body on a beach in 2015.
That child had a name — Alan Kurdi — and his death galvanized Canada into a collective effort to do something, anything, to help Syrian refugees six years ago. Amid a flood of already horrible stories that summer of Syrians risking their lives to flee the violence in their country, it was the sight of a child — the most innocent of victims — that drove the horror home to Canadians.
Is the Kamloops discovery a similar, galvanizing moment for Canadians? In Ottawa, for one unofficial memorial day at least, it was being treated as such on Monday, marked best perhaps by the tearful public breakdown of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Silent, struggling for words for nearly one long minute, Singh was only able to say he would pursue “justice” for these children before ending his news conference. It was an affecting display of what Singh had arrived to say: that words are not going to fix this.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cast the Kamloops discovery as the painful, unavoidable truth for those who have been trying to avert their eyes from the history of residential schools.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Trudeau at least twice directed his comments at this constituency, arguing that the grisly find makes it impossible any longer to be casually unaware of what happened at residential schools.
“This is a moment in time,” Trudeau said. “Non-Indigenous Canadians may not have understood the depth of the trauma for those families … These are the things that Canada is waking up to this weekend. It’s a difficult and hard awakening.”
Politicians, for all their good intentions and lofty words, are more opinion followers than opinion leaders. So the extent to which this is an awakening for Canada — as Trudeau is presenting it — doesn’t rest on speeches or meetings or even urgent debates in the House of Commons.
If this is a true moment for truth and reconciliation, that will come from the Canadian public, and what pressure it places on politicians and governments to act. That is precisely what happened when that picture of Alan Kurdi travelled around the world and into people’s homes in the summer of 2015.
It will be a moment too if Canadians feel moved to act on their own, as they did with a wave of their own refugee sponsorships and donations in the wake of Alan Kurdi’s death.
How ordinary Canadians can be moved to tangible action after the Kamloops discovery is less clear. As Trudeau pointed out himself on Monday, any redress or reparation for the shame of residential schools has to be guided by Indigenous people, so it’s not as if even the best-intentioned of non-Indigenous Canadians can take matters into their own hands.
In the meantime, though, the 215 children have become a powerful symbol, maybe even more powerful because they lack names for now. Their unmarked graves stand to acquire all the stature of the tomb for Canada’s Unknown Soldier, which exists to pay tribute to all those who couldn’t be memorialized at the time of their wartime deaths.
“It is a frightening thing for human beings to think that we could die and that no one would know to mark our grave, to say where we had come from, to say when we had been born and when exactly we died,” former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson said in 2000 when the tomb was unveiled, in what I would argue was the best speech of her tenure. “Because we do not know him and we do not know what he could have become, he has become more than one body, more than one grave. He is an ideal.”
Those words could well serve as a memorial to 215 unknown little soldiers, victims of a war they didn’t sign up to fight. Their legacy will be measured not just by how politicians memorialize them, but by how much Canadians remember them as unknown victims no more.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt