The juxtaposition isn’t lost on John Stevens.
But at this moment, Stevens, an Ojibway man from Nipissing First Nation who was born and raised in Lindsay is choosing not to address it – not just yet.
Instead, he’s smiling as he observes a half dozen children about 50 metres away giggling and running, the way kids do when they first discover the speed of their own legs. His smile gets bigger and he laughs a bit, too, as they climb a play structure in Old Mill Park, their doting parents never farther than an arm’s length away.
“They’re happy,” he says, glancing periodically at the kids from a nearby picnic table. “They’re smiling. They’re inter-racial. And they’re enjoying each other’s company.” This is when Stevens, a father of two adult children, pauses, takes a breath and adds, “There’s no hate.”
It’d be easy – expected, even – to assume Stevens would draw the stark contrast between this joyous, nurturing image against that of the one that’s consumed him for about a week and given him nightmares: the horrid discovery of 215 graves outside a former residential school in Kamloops B.C. To be sure, Indigenous people everywhere share Stevens’ gut-wrenching pain, still hurting a week later – likely to hurt always.
But here, at this moment, Stevens sees hope. It helps ease the pain.
While Stevens was not in residential school, intergenerational trauma means that he does have a personal experience with it – just not first-hand. To be sure, he, like every Indigenous person in this country, is only one loved one removed from the suffering this kind of forced relocation inflicted. For him, it was his grandma Legault who, at age nine, was taken from her reserve near North Bay to a Catholic-run residential school.
She didn’t talk to him much about the experience, he says, though she did tell him she enrolled her own children in the nearby mainstream school system in order to hide them from government authorities. “So they could have a life. She didn’t want them to go through what she did,” recounts Stevens. His grandmother left the residential school at age 16 and married shortly after.
About the threat of being uprooted, Stevens can, however, relate. He draws on his own upbringing in Lindsay with an Indigenous father and Dutch mother. “Mom always told me, ‘don’t tell them (you’re Indigenous). Tell them that you’re Dutch.’ Because they (his parents) lived in fear of my brother and I being taken away.”
Motivated by the grisly revelation in Kamloops and his need to better appreciate the pain that residential schools caused, Stevens recently reached out to his aunts – (his father died in 1998). He wanted to know what their mother – his grandmother – had recounted to them.
What he learned through his aunts is chilling – tales of children crying and screaming at night, girls and boys being violated. Then silence.
And the graves.
“They might have found the ones in B.C, but at all of those residential schools, there’s grave sites at every single one of them,” his aunts told him. “To this day, (his aunts) believe that. There are more bodies to be found.”
Indeed, the government of Canada is not disputing this claim and recently acknowledged that it might legally force the Catholic Church to disclose documents from its residential schools, which are potentially related to unmarked graves.
Seeing images of the Kamloops crime scene via his TV screen, “infuriated me. And I believed it. It didn’t surprise me at all one bit.”
“It’s a (terrible) part of history and a (terrible) part of the history of the church,” he continues, as a nearby church bell chimes ominously.
It may be easy for non-Indigenous people to be horrified at the literal unearthing of such a heinous crime committed years ago and many provinces away – while still feeling a disconnect because of that time and distance. Not so for Stevens.
“It feels like yesterday,” he says. “I feel their pain. I feel their suffering…because of my native side.”
And yet his anger and frustration and sadness are tempered by empathy and sympathy.
Justice must be meted out, he insists, and the culpable – the church, the federal government – must be held accountable. But there’s also this:
“I feel sorry for the descendants of the priests and the government officials who knew about this (at the time),” he offers.
He’s also more optimistic about the future than one might expect, given the countless unfulfilled promises made to Indigenous people over many many years.
“I have to stay positive,” says Stevens, who’s open about his own personal struggles, but is buoyed by plans to upgrade his education and studying sound engineering. He’d also like to see an Indigenous friendship centre in Lindsay, something he has considered helping to launch. For now, though, he’s hopeful this heartbreaking news at the other end of the country will mobilize everyone everywhere to enact change. Finally. “I’ve always been a patient man,” he says, stressing that he’s grateful to the non-Indigenous friends he has who’ve been genuinely supportive.
“Actions speak more than words,” says Stevens. “If you feel more can be done, then raise your voice. No matter what colour or background you are, talk to your politician. Write those letters. Raise that voice. It will be heard. Eventually.”