WARNING: This story contains details that readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
Those two words are on a memorial in the South Okanagan, marking where local Indigenous children were once loaded into cattle trucks before being taken to residential schools in Kamloops and Cranbrook.
They’re also the two words one of the men who survived being taken from his family in that very spot and all the traumas that followed will reflect on Sept. 30, the first Truth and Reconciliation Day.
The new federal statutory holiday was approved last year by Parliament, and is intended to offer a moment for reflection. But Jack Kruger, a residential school survivor living in Syilx territory, is among those who are dubious of the messaging.
“What are we reconciling? I would like to know. I cannot celebrate that day,” Kruger said. “I can’t celebrate when I’m alive and they’re dead.”
Kruger speaks frankly and regularly about the friends he lost and the horrors he experienced while in the residential school system. He alleges he saw sexual abuse and violence, knows of children who died at the hands of those who were supposed to care for them. He talks about it all so he can be the voice of those who didn’t survive.
It’s not easy to do, but he wants to make sure nobody loses sight of what happened to so many boys and girls, just like him, in those years.
Whether all those horrors are what non-Indigenous people will reflect on today, however, remains to be seen, said Okanagan Indigenous leaders.
“I think it’s a good baby step. It’s good there’s some national reconciliation,” Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band said.
“To the average Canadian it’s, ‘Wow, I get a holiday, clap my hands, I get to sleep in or I’ll get to go golfing or go shopping or whatever I do on normal holidays.’”
He doesn’t see it being a moment for reflection on residential schools or Indigenous issues in this country, but said it’s still a good step.
“The residential school system is something to remember, the orange shirt thing is something to remember,” he said.
His hope, however, is that people take at least an hour of that time to realize why they’re “getting a day off with pay,” because that history is important to consider.
Grand Chief Stewart Philip said he believes Canadians tend to duck their history.
“The general public doesn’t want to embrace their own history, they want to deny it. The general public is still in denial,” he said.
“Again, the discovery of the unmarked graves, which are in the thousands now, is forcing them to take a look at the essential need for genuine measures of reconciliation.”
The federal government said it made the statutory holiday to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.
It’s also Orange Shirt Day, an Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day that honours the children who survived the residential school system and remembers those who did not.
“This day relates to the experience of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, on her first day of school, where she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt, which was taken from her,” the federal government says on the page marking today.
“It is now a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.