Vancouver memorial service remembers the children of the Indian residential schools

MP Jody Wilson-Raybould (Screenshot via @CJPAC)

A memorial service led by Vancouver’s rabbis expressed the sadness and horror that the Jewish community has felt after the discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 children at a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C.

They coupled their prayers, however, with calls for concrete action to correct a historic injustice at the service, held at the playground of a Jewish day school on June 4.

“The greatest gift we can give these children is not words of condolence, but acts of conscience,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, chair of the Rabbinic Association of Vancouver and Reform Rabbis of Canada. “We have to make our prayers real not in heaven, but here on earth.”

The service was held on the playground of Vancouver’s Talmud Torah school before a live audience of Grade 5 students and an online crowd.

“The sounds of children at play normally fills this space every day,” Rabbi Moskovitz said. “Its silence now cries out to us from those souls whose childhood was ripped away.”

Rabbi Moskovitz shared Friday’s podium with four other Vancouver rabbis and independent member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould—an Indigenous member of the House of Commons whose family suffered the outrages of the residential school system.

“The residential schools are a very dark part of our history,” she said. “I am angry and frustrated and have a deep sense of sadness about this.”

“We know that this was not an isolated incident and that more will be discovered.”

The Indian Residential Schools were created in 1870 with the goal, in the words of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, “to remove the Indian from the child” and prepare them for civilization and Christianity. Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and committed to the care of these church-run schools. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reports that the deaths of 4,100 children have been documented, but the actual number is certainly higher.

The Kamloops school, one of the largest in the country, was run by the Roman Catholic church. It was thought 51 children died there, but over the Victoria Day weekend members of the community, using ground penetrating radar, discovered a mass grave holding 215 bodies.

The RCMP is now investigating the discovery.

Beyond reminders of Jewish teachings that destroying one life is the same as destroying a world, rabbis have called for immediate action on some of the recommendations in the report prepared by the TRC. Those proposals include providing $1.5 million for ground penetrating radar studies of all 139 residential school sites.

“So far none of those recommendations have been acted on. After all that we have spent responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, a million and a half dollars is nothing,” Rabbi Moskovitz said in an interview after the Vancouver service. “We must do this because we need to move from words to deed.”

Specific actions endorsed by Reform Jewish Communities of Canada include calls to reach out to Indigenous communities, to learn more about the history of Canadian treaties, creation of reconciliation teams at synagogues, making donations to the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and pressing all levels of government to implement the TRC’s proposals.

Nina Kreiger, executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, said the Shoah and the history of injustice to Indigenous communities create a responsibility to act.

For the Vancouver centre, that call to action has included sponsoring several educational symposia featuring survivors of the Holocaust speaking alongside survivors of residential schools.

The need is even more pressing now, she added in an email exchange.

“The discovery of the 215 children in Kamloops is sharpening the collective focus on the need for concrete actions both to address the injustices of the past and to address the legacies that continue to affect Indigenous people,” she wrote. “It has increased and in no way diminished the opportunity to advance the truth and reconciliation movement, and also opportunities for intercultural partnerships dedicated to eliminating discrimination and building a more just, inclusive society.”

Rabbinical groups and Jewish organizations across the country have issued statements in solidarity with the First Nations’ communities and reminding the Jewish community of its own history in which children were torn from their families never to return.

“Our people were killed in the name of enlightenment as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, not at all unlike the Indian Problem spoken of by the Canadian, Duncan Campbell Scott, who ran the residential school system from 1913 to 1932,” rabbis Jordan Cohen, Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli, Daniel Green and Aaron Selevan of Hamilton, Ont. wrote. “His stated goal was “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department… ”

“We similarly cannot forget the many centuries of attempts of the Catholic Church to forcibly convert us and our children to Christianity and to eradicate our religion, heritage and culture, identical to the self-stated goals of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, who ran Canada’s residential schools.”

Watch the full memorial service for the Children of Kamloops Residential School:

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