By Sandy Palinski, Director, Children’s Services, Social & Community Services, Halton Region

I was 40 years-old when I first learned about Residential Schools. I remember the moment clearly. I was reading a draft learning document intended to support staff with an understanding of Indigenous people in Canada. I remember feeling disbelief and not understanding. The next day I approached the author of the document and asked if these events had really happened. Yes, I did that…it just didn’t seem possible to me.  The author assured me that the events had occurred and offered me the contact name of an Indigenous staff member who could verify the accuracy and give me another perspective on the document. I called. The events were verified and the accuracy of the document was confirmed. I just sat there at my desk – shocked, appalled, and confused.

I later attended an all-day learning program led by a local Indigenous woman who shared our horrific history in Canada. I learned more about the Sixties Scoop, the assimilation and abuse of Indigenous children in Residential Schools across Canada, and the inhuman treatment of people in Indian hospitals. I’m not even sure then if the gravity of our tragic history had sunk in for me.

It was later when I read a report outlining an Indigenous youth’s path to crime, drugs, and violence; and the story of grandparents and parents who couldn’t love, and who lived their own lives of drugs and abuse to get away from their memories of Residential Schools, that I really started to reflect on the impact of our history. That report, a personal account of a youth’s life, showed me how the various forms of abuse and neglect at Residential Schools have impacted Indigenous people, their children and grandchildren. It left me with a feeling of intense sadness, grief, and responsibility.

Throughout my career as I have worked with different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned much, and I keep learning. I had the privilege of supporting the designation of three Indigenous communities to set up children’s aid societies, and it was a powerful and moving experience to see them take back authority to care for their children.  As I write this, I know it is contentious work, but it is important to restore child welfare authority to Indigenous peoples. As part of that work, I remember working with one community who asked a colleague and me to meet with their Band Council. We were discussing their model of service and looking for them to make changes.  A member of the Band Council clearly reminded me that if we forced this community to change their model, we were repeating the ways of colonization. That comment took the wind out of me. I had to catch my breath. I remember sitting by the lake reflecting on my actions and our interactions. I came back to the table and re-engaged with them in a new relationship, respecting them as a nation with the ability to make their own decisions aligned with their culture and beliefs. Their model of service remained unchanged. Instead, I changed the way we did business.

Picture of rocky lake shoreline
Photo credit: Angela Bellegarde

I have had the privilege of working with various Indigenous people who have shared with me teachings of their cultures, have shown me generosity, kindness, and love. I have learned from Elders who have taught me about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and the four Traditional Medicines. I marvel at their generosity in sharing their teachings with me, given our history. I have so much appreciation for the calm wisdom Elders bring and place these learning opportunities as my highest learning experiences. I have tried to bring these teachings into my own life.

As I reflect on the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School, I am saddened by the loss and send my deepest sympathy to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation. I am further saddened by the thought of more children across our nation who need to be found and mourned.  I am reminded of the importance of continuing my learning and supporting others to learn; of my responsibility to do things differently; and of being an ally. National Indigenous History Month provides us with an opportunity to honour the history, heritage, and diversity of Indigenous people in Canada, but our responsibilities to learn the Truth and engage in meaningful Reconciliation are ongoing.  We all have a role.