Settler grief: Erin Stewart Elliott shares her journal entry as she acknowledges her grief about the 215 children

On Thursday May 28, the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, Rosanne Casimir, shared news that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School

“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Ms Casimir said. “Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlups te Secwepemc is the final resting place of these children.”

A little over a week later, in a private conversation processing some of this news and the impacts being experienced throughout this community – where many people are survivors of residential schools, of that particular school and of intergenerational trauma because of the schools – Erin Stewart Elliott read me her journal entry.

Erin is an artist, a mother and wife, a community organizer with a passion for systems, an ally, and a program manager and instructor at Capilano University, who works closely with many members of the Stl’atl’imx Nation. She has a huge heart and and I was moved by her words – and her ability to navigate this strange place of feeling grief, yet not wanting to do anything to cause harm, or detract from the emotional load and grief the news has triggered for community members whose lives and families have been deeply affected by the policies and practices that were designed with the intention of destroying them. Erin’s personal reflections opened something inside me – a grief I’d tucked away thinking, “don’t add to anyone else’s burden right now”. But emotions that are not processed carry a charge, or a shadow. It’s work we need to do. I think we need to do this in safe and caring ways. I don’t think any indigenous people need the burden of carrying their settler-friends’ or colleagues’ or neighbours’ emotional baggage. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address our emotions. I’m super grateful for the space Erin provided for me to do a little bit of that, and for her permission to share her personal journal reflections here.

June 6

Today I am grateful for

  • being alive
  • Breathing
  • My body working in a good way
  • Having great people in my life
  • Living in a beautiful place
  • Hearing birds
  • Hearing the river
  • Walking in the forest
  • Feeling my grief
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Gentle self talk
  • Doing my best
  • Reaching out to friends
  • Being reached out to by friends

I am clearly grieving. I know because I feel like I felt when my mom passed. Disengaged, zoning out, moving through molasses. I’m in a fog.

Every step feels hard, heavy slow and requires effort. I am eating junk food. I am saying to myself “it doesn’t matter. I don’t care”.

And actually feeling my grief does matter. I do care.

It took me a while to be aware that what I am feeling is grief. Because I have this thing about “it’s not my grief to feel. These aren’t my stories”.

And I feel the grief of hearing the truth. And I am feeling the grief of other people hearing the truth. I feel the grief of my friends and neighbours and students and colleagues – whose families attended residential school. I feel Laureen’s grief. I feel Lisa grief. It’s big!

So I am in an in between place of feeling two kinds of grief. Settler grief for getting a better understanding of the genocide that happened. And Indigenous grief of always having known this had happened.

I feel angry. I feel sad and heart broken. I feel overwhelmed.

And I feel hopeful, and also watchful. Can this lead to actual meaningful change? Or more lip service?

Because the systems of white supremacy that created residential schools are still in place. They just look a little different. They are the child welfare system. They are the judicial, health, political, economic, and education systems.

It is assumed white superiority at every turn.

And I see how this is both individual work, while also requiring system and policy change.

The trans theoretical model of change seems so slow. Can we all be butterflies and just transform?

It’s so fucking unfair. And the hate and ugliness and lies, and evil on which Canada was built is disgusting. It’s repulsive.

And I personally benefit from it. And there is reckoning with that as well. What to do, what to do……

And in my brain, Kamloops and the fight for old growth are cross patterned. That the thinking that goes into cutting 2000 year old trees is the same thinking that created the residential school system.

We are fighting for our lives. And for the lives of future generations.

I want to crawl into bed and live in a blanket cocoon until this passes. And come out refreshed and renewed. And have the world be ok.

The world is not ok. And not being ok as a response is actually the right response.

I don’t know how to grieve, and keep going. I don’t know how to feel this and get my work done. I don’t know how to feel this much, and be present in my relationships with Rob and River, and be ok.

I will be vulnerable and share my experience with them. So they don’t take me personally.

What can I ask from them?

  • Patience
  • Understanding
  • Gentleness
  • Softness
  • Support
  • Love
  • Space to be in my feelings, without having to be different

Can I do this with myself? Can I ask myself to be this way with myself?

If the news was reported at a different time in the year would I be feeling so raw? As in, at the end of the academic year, after 15 months of Covid, while feeling like I’m recovering finally from the landslide and everything that came afterwards.

And maybe it’s this collective rawness that is helping generate a broader understanding. Without Covid I don’t know that there would be the same settler response.

I am bringing my own rawness. Of having been through multi tasking constant busyness for the last 10 months. And as that has eased up, now I am fully feeling all the feels I was too busy for.

I kept it together. I got my work done. I got my projects done. I spent project money. I reported on it. I made meals. I got River to school. I did laundry. I did dishes. I bought food. I walked. I hiked. I drank tea. I made art. I got up every morning. I went to bed early at night to get good sleep and keep going. I was strong. I acted with kindness and gentleness for others. I was a safe place for people in my extended circle.

And now I have choice. To use my tools. Or not. This is not good or bad. Choice is just choice. Each moment is new.

Where do I want to be, and what will take me there?

I have been remote. I have felt jaded. The remedy of these feelings is finding and feeling the joy in small moments. Of experiencing fulfillment instead of taking the remote and disconnected path.

Art by Erin Stewart Elliott

INVITATION:

Erin and I will host a wellness circle, online, for anyone who’d like to come together and reflect on these revelations, support and share feelings safely (without causing any harm to First Nations) and explore what response we might be called towards. We’ll host the circle online, on Monday, June 21, 5pm – 6pm. Please email pembygrl@gmail.com if you’re interested, and we’ll send you the link.

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