We were strolling the Danube promenade in Budapest when we came upon them. The day had been a lovely one — warm temperatures, a slight breeze off the river, fluffy clouds playing hide-and-seek with the late afternoon sun. We were alone on our saunter until, some 20 metres ahead of us, we saw a number of people who had gathered in small groups looking down on what appeared to be a long row of cast iron shoes placed on the concrete embankment level to and adjacent to the walkway.
Some were placing flowers there. Others, heads bowed, hands covering their mouths, appeared transfixed and lost in thought. When we came upon the memorial, we were stunned into disbelief. The memorial plaque read: "To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45."
The Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist government, dutiful henchmen of the German Nazis and equally reprehensible, would line up Jewish children, women and men on the embankment, shoot them and watch gleefully as they fell into the river. The images, especially of the children’s shoes, beggared belief, but beyond that it was a public acknowledgment by Hungarians of what their own government had done to their fellow citizens.
How remarkable that the dozens of heart-wrenching memorials which have spontaneously appeared on the steps of legislatures and churches across the country, most consisting of 215 pairs of children’s shoes, would remind us of that horror we encountered in Budapest. There are few damning words that have not already been spoken and written about the monstrous tragedy of discovering the unmarked graves of more than 200 children at the Kamloops residential school. Children lost in the loneliness of dying alone, their bodies disposed of, literally covered up like so much awkward chattel, their parents left to grieve in the never-ending wallow of uncertainty and loss.
The complicity of a racist government hell-bent on solving "the Indian problem by taking the Indian out of the child," and the supposedly "Christian" church communities only too willing to do the government’s bidding, represent one of the darkest and most shameful periods of the disgraceful relationship Indigenous people have been forced to endure by their "founders."
One of the many calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which this federal government has ignored for the past six years (as in, "we remain in consultation with Indigenous communities on the best way forward"), is to provide the means and resources to uncover other mass graves of children on the properties of the 132-plus residential schools across the country. Now that the federal government has been embarrassed into fulfilling that resource commitment, that promise must be monitored.
We cannot allow that promise to be buried along with the countless dozens of Indigenous children. Without claiming that its investigation was exhaustive, the TRC has estimated that more than 4,100 children died in the custody of their keepers.
Canadians are not that naive about their politics. We all know that one of the most effective ways of shunting a disturbing issue off the front pages of the media is to establish a royal commission or a committee of notables "to examine the issues and present recommendations." These issues are often like meteorites, blazing across the midnight sky until they disappear from sight and mind into another hidden corner of the universe. On the issue of these dead but not forgotten children, these shooting stars continue to blaze, and until the media relegates the ongoing story to the back pages, now is the opportunity to magnify the blaze.
It is time to demand that the federal government provide all the necessary resources to leave no stone, no weed-filled back lot, no paved subdivision, no mall unturned until Canada can account for the location of every unmarked, covered-up residential school cemetery in the country and the children who lie there. Can we abide countless Tombs of the Unknown Child? Can we do any less? Commitments made must be promises kept.
It is no longer enough for Canadians to lament and proffer the lame excuse, "This was not me; I did not do this. It was done more than 50 years ago." There is no such thing as a Canadian without history. Ancestral or not, we all bear the responsibility and the burden of this shame. Accountability is collective.
When then-national chief Phil Fontaine fought for and secured the formal apology of the federal government for its role in the residential-schools debacle and set in motion the structure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 13 years ago, there was no turning our collective backs on these dishonourable and lethal chapters of our history.
Canada and Canadian church communities, with one glaring exception, have formally apologized for the incarceration of these innocents. Perhaps the government of the Vatican can now summon the decency and courage to do the same. These children cry out for accountability and the justice denied them during their short lives. We cannot heal, we cannot reconcile, until their pain moves us to action.
Beverly Sabourin retired as the vice-provost of Indigenous initiatives at Lakehead University, and is a member of the Pic Mobert Ojibwe. Peter Globensky is a former senior policy adviser on Indigenous affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister. They invite your comments at email@example.com