Because this story reverberated around the world.
Bracken was on assignment for the New York Times, and beat 64,823 photographs and open-format entries from 4,066 photographers across 130 countries in the contest.
Said the global jury chair Rena Effendi, “It is a kind of image that sears itself into your memory. I could almost hear the quietness in this photograph, a quiet moment of global reckoning for the history of colonization, not only in Canada but around the world.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said:
Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail shared the story behind the photo: it was taken on June 19, 2021, of a memorial on Tk’emlups te Secwepemc land just outside Kamloops, B.C.: Red dresses hung on crosses as the evening sun broke through the rain. She was on assignment, following the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. That photo was taken by a stretch of Highway 5 between the powwow grounds and the site of the former residential school.
That was a little under a year ago, friends. And since those first 215 children were found, more and more ground-penetrating scans have been undertaken by other Nations. I cannot find a current update to the number of unmarked graves that have since been found. (A month after this photo was taken, it was already at 1308.) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report estimates the number of unmarked graves to be 3,200.
I felt lucky when I gained Canadian citizenship in 2006. I’d married a Canadian fella ten years earlier, and I had spent a long time in various stages of visa and status purgatory. I’d gone periods of time between status cracks, with no health insurance, which feels very precarious when you live and work in mountain sports, and even though I thought the citizenship ceremony was probably going to be a lot of pomp and air, I was surprised by how moved I was, to be handed a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to feel suddenly safe and protected by this story of what Canada is all about. (And that was with a pretty great nationality of origin to start with.)
I still am grateful to be here.
And at the same time, I think it’s important that we reckon with the fact that the Canadian story we’re sold, the “brand” of this nation, needs a massive overhaul. Or a big truth-telling session.
We’re not all decent nice people with a penchant for maple syrup and peace-keeping. We’re not politer, or less racist, than other nations. We’re not a country of beautiful natural landscapes.
We’re a nation that grew out of a pile of Royal charters from the French and English kings, permitting corporations to extract fur, under complete monopoly, for the periodic rent of two beaver and two elk.
If you’ve never attended a Canadian history class, here is the short version: European settlers spent their first years in this part of the continent hunting beavers en masse in order to turn their pelts into fancy hats. Founded through the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay company operated as the de facto government in large portions of what is now Canada for nearly 200 years between 1670-1869. Private enterprises like these, with backing from the French and then the British governments, claimed larger and larger swathes of the continent to claim more and more fur, lumber, and ore, often directly stealing from and overpowering Indigenous trading systems that had been sustainably in place for thousands of years. Eventually they spread their land grab all the way to the Pacific Ocean and the northern coastlines in pursuit of gold, silver, iron, copper, nickel, and diamond reserves. The eventual formation of Canada as “Canada” came about in the late 1800s for nakedly economic reasons, primarily to benefit the companies and conglomerates that were trading Canadian natural resources with the British, but also to facilitate railroad construction (using slave labor) in which civic leaders had investments.
That history is not so far back we should forget about it. It’s what we’ve grown out of. It is still very live in the way we treat “natural resources”, hand out mineral and gas licences, handle “Crown land”, and relate with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. It’s still affecting our ability to be the people we imagine ourselves to be.
Don’t take this as criticism. Don’t say I’m ungrateful and send me back to where I came from. Or do, I don’t really care. We need to know our history. We need to acknowledge that “Canada”, the story and the symbols, cover over a lot of painful things, and that if we want the future story of this enterprise, this adventure, this shared home, we need to enter the sombre, quiet, reckoning space that photos like Amber’s invite us into.
This reverberated around the world. Which means, no-one around the world believes the happy little myth that we’re just a nice polite country that’s you don’t want to mistake for America. Eyebrows are up. Who are you really, people want to know? What exactly are you capable of? And what do you stand for?
I sit with this image and I think about it… and these questions… and what they mean for us, and whether we have the courage to revisit the history books, and to rewrite the stories we’re living into now.