Someone went to a lot of trouble to destroy a hand-made display of orange hearts at Chilliwack Secondary School.
The display was created to honour residential school survivors and their families, as part of a Taking Action initiative undertaken by several high school students, according to Chilliwack Secondary teacher Rick Joe.
“We chose the fence at the front of the school so people passing by would see the hearts,” Joe recounted.
Now it’s clear some of the orange hearts were torched, some were snapped in two, maybe kicked, while others were ripped clean off the fence.
Each orange heart has a handwritten message on it like ‘Justice for the Children,’ ‘Every Child Matters’ or ‘Bring them Home.’
The idea was to raise awareness about the pernicious impacts of the Indian Residential School system, with the immediately recognizable colour orange – adopted for Orange Shirt Day to represent those children who never made it home.
The hand-scrawled messages encourage the public to reflect with kindness on the terrible history that allowed children to fall between the cracks of the often cruel system that was designed to “take the Indian out of the child” by erasing their culture, language and traditions.
The display had only been up for a couple weeks in March of this year when someone set fire to a garbage can at the edge of the tennis court a few feet from the hearts. It happened in the middle of the night on March 15, likely with the help of an accelerant since the flames could be seen on the security footage shooting up to the sky.
The footage shows a figure near the fence but they couldn’t positively identify anyone yet, and it’s not clear if they purposely meant to vandalize the display with the fire, or not. The fire scorched the fence to all the way to the top rail.
Toward the end of April another more direct hit by vandals was reported. Either an individual, or a group, directly vandalized the orange heart display this time.
“I noticed a heart was missing. And this time all the bottom hearts were torn off,” Joe said.
Shredded pieces of the smaller hearts lay on the ground.
Joe’s traditional name is Skalúlalus and he is member of the Lil’wat First Nation. He has family who attended Kamloops Indian Residential School where the 215 were discovered, and he attended day school himself.
“Anytime there is an attempt to raise awareness, it can stir up reactions,” the teacher noted. “People lash out.”
He knows from personal experience. At one point he found himself pre-emptively stripping his truck of anything that made it obvious he was Indigenous, like the small canoe paddle he once had hanging from his rear view with pride. After he did that, he noticed he didn’t suffer as many dings or scratches to his vehicle.
“Ever since the apology was issued from (former Prime Minister Stephen) Harper, we have made some progress,” Joe acknowledged.
The 2008 apology by Harper made on behalf of the Canadian government was meant to take responsibility for its role in the residential school debacle, and it came out just before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work hammering out 94 recommendations.
“But we are still a long ways away,” Joe said. “This shows that locally we’re still in the truth-telling phase of truth and reconciliation.”
He does believe that overall Canadians were genuinely upset when the news of the first 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops came to light. There was a national shift.
“The whole country was sad.”
But only a fraction of the 139 residential schools have been searched, and there is much work left to do. The heart vandalism has left those involved with the project both disheartened and hurt.
Geralee George, a Grade 9 CSS student who made some of the hearts, said the damage made her very sad.
“It really shows that whoever did this does not support the ‘Every Child Matters’ idea at all,” George said.
It’s not clear why anyone would chose to try to destroy the display, or what possible reason there could be behind such mean-spirited destruction.
“People can hurt in different ways, and they reach out in different ways,” the teacher said.
The person, or persons, who did it could even be someone impacted by residential schools themselves, Joe said, through intergenerational trauma.
Possibly just seeing the display brought back too many memories.
“It is emotional, hard work. You never know. It could also be someone whose parents often say negative things toward Indigenous people and they were just following their family and teachings.”
Chilliwack School District staff, as well as Chilliwack Secondary staff, are still looking into the acts of mischief and vandalism.
“This is not over yet,” Joe said.
“Hopefully we find out who it was and talk to them.”
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