CCS Principal Michelle Owens reflects on attending a vigil remembering children lost to residential schools.
All these bridges we cross all have water underneath
When the ashes of lost love make it hard to breathe
My love if we burn would you burn right next to me?
(“The Spark” by William Prince)
I tripped beside a summer beach bonfire as a child, one hand landing in the coals as I fell. I had light scarring on my fingers when I was younger, now long faded. I had summers with family and community and songs sung by firelight. I picked berries with my mother and grandmother and cousins. My mother taught at the elementary school I attended, and I remember walking with her on winter mornings, my small hand in hers, both of us wearing mittens knit by her mother, my grandmother.
I felt the heat of coals on my fingers again recently, offering tobacco and prayer at the sacred fire being tended at the legislature grounds in Winnipeg. We suspended our weekly staff meeting so that the in-town staff could go together, to witness to the children’s lives lost in Residential Schools, to mourn the 215 children whose graves were identified on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. [Update: Since this vigil, the 751 graves have also been identified near the former Marieval school in Saskatchewan.]
People circled the fire, with drummers and singing. We smudged and checked protocol and permissions before entering the circle and going to the fire. Thinking about the women from our diaconal traditions who worked in residential schools, thinking about the children who died in schools, and the stories I have heard from survivors, offering tobacco I felt the heat of the burning coals.
….if we burn would you burn right next to me?
I think the pathway of reconciliation is one that sometimes burns. One that calls us close enough to the fire that it is hard to breath ‘in the ashes of lost love’. Although William Prince (from Peguis First Nation, north of Winnipeg) is singing in Spark about personal love, the lyrics speak to me of the love, the broken open hearts we must have to commit ourselves to witnessing truth and seeking reconciliation.
It was indeed hard to breathe, standing beside the steps filled with children’s shoes. So much love lost and turned to ashes. So many families bereaved. So many children starved, beaten and killed. The residential school legacy is not water under the bridge. It is a haunted house. It is a house we have inherited, constructed of colonialism, filled with ashes and tears. This house shelters and feeds some of us, while others of us continued to be devoured.
My fingertips tingle with the memory of burning. My memory burns with the love that filled my childhood and was stolen from other children. Gathered berries turn to ashes, and it is hard to breathe.
When we finished our time of witness and presence, I crossed the bridge above the waters of the Assiniboine River. The songs and the drumming still burned in my heart. The residential school project was genocidal: not just in loss of culture, but in loss of life. And despite all the power and commitment of the churches and government, it is a failed project. Indigenous peoples and language and ceremony and culture survive.
We can keep crossing the bridge, over the waters underneath. Keep breathing, in the presence of ashes of lost love. And we can burn together.