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'215 empty chairs': North Van schools create touching displays after Kamloops discovery

'215 empty chairs. 215 lost dreams and 215 lost bright futures. We will remember … always the 215 lost children'

This article has been amended since first posting to clarify that there were 18 residential schools in B.C. not 28.  

Two hundred and fifteen empty chairs were lined up at a North Vancouver school this week.

Each chair to represent one of the young lives discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the territory of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. 

This week, schools across the North Shore have come together for meaningful learning experiences and memorials to honour the children.

“215 empty chairs. 215 lost dreams and 215 lost bright futures. We will remember … always the 215 lost children.” Principal Sandra Singh of École Braemar Elementary wrote on Twitter on June 1. 

Singh said the Braemar school staff were deeply saddened by the devastating news from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and under the leadership of Lisa Pedersen, grade 1/2 teacher, staff strongly felt it was important to honour the 215 lives lost by creating an installation of 215 chairs.

“Students placed a cedar bough on each empty chair in memory of each child,” she said.  

First Nations support worker Tchilaqs7Tchila, Gordon Dick of Tsleil-Waututh Nation also led the Coast Salish anthem for staff.

Singh said it was “good healing for the heart.”

“We stand together in unity and understand the work we need to do together,” she said.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School and North Vancouver's St. Paul's Indian Residential School were just two of 18 federally funded Christian schools in B.C. thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend, stripped of their culture and language, and subjected to brutal treatment as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society, which began in the late 1800s. It wasn't until 1984 that all residential schools in B.C. were closed down. The last one in Canada didn't close until 1996. 

At Seymour Heights Elementary, Grade 1 students made a large heart with nature materials to honour those Indigenous children who never came home.

“We talked about residential schools and thought about how children should feel at school,” Grade 1 teacher Katie Nicholls wrote on Twitter.  

Through discussions, Sanj Johal, Seymour Heights principal, said one young student made an eye-opening realization.

"Our school has 250 kids,” the student said. “There were 215 kids found in Kamloops. That is almost our entire school!"

He said many meaningful conversations were being had.

“Through an open heart and an open mind, we offer dialogue and space to learn the truth and to understand the impacts of residential schools and our shared past, present, and future,” Johal said.

Across North Vancouver schools and throughout B.C., students and staff have also been wearing orange in memory of the 215 Indigenous children. The movement, which aligns with Orange Shirt Day and is being encouraged by the BC Teachers’ Federation, is spreading across the province to raise awareness, help spark conversations, and to send the message that “Every Child Matters.”

Along with other schools, a sea of orange could be seen at École Larson Elementary on June 3. Conversations of truth have been happening across all grade levels at the school this week, said vice-principal Amelia Poitras.

“One class created an art installation sending a message of peace and hope for the souls to be finally set free,” she said.

“On Wednesday, we wore Orange to stand in memory of every child lost-the 215, and those who have yet to be set free.”

215 White Roses line the fence at Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School

On June 4, at Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School all staff and students came together to place 215 white roses on the fence at the front of the school in remembrance of the loss of life. 

“Our students also wrote messages of reflection on orange ribbons and tied them around our fence posts,” Jennifer Alexander, deputy head of school, said, adding that the school community was incredibly horrified to learn of the Kamloops residential school findings. 

Anjeanette Dawson of Squamish Nation, who is an Indigenous counselor and specialist at Kenneth Gordon, said returning to school on Monday after hearing the news, was a “really heavy feeling for some.”

Dawson, whose parents went to residential school, said she had been working with students through the week and sharing the history of residential schools in different grade levels. The school offers an alternative programme for students with learning differences and specific learning challenges.

“Of course, they all had mixed feelings, because they really don't understand the magnitude of a mass grave like that,” Dawson explained.  

“With the age levels that we work with here and the level of academic knowledge and capability, we have to be a little bit more careful here at Kenneth Gordon in how we explain it. But certainly, some of them were angry and wondering why it happened. There were a lot of questions for sure.”

When it came to students’ reflections on the orange ribbons, Dawson was deeply touched by what they wrote.  

“One that has stuck with me that one of the students came to share, who is grade six or seven, was, ‘keep fighting the fight. Sorry, this has happened.’ Other messages that were put on there were, ‘too young to go’ and ‘not to be forgotten.’"

Tsonomot, Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education, said the Indigenous education team was guiding teachers in SD44 through this difficult time.

The team has created a grade-appropriate resource guide that has been sent to teachers and staff to support them as they have thoughtful and sensitive conversations about the tragic event and the history of the residential school system.

To help support conversations in the classroom, Indigenous education team member and artist Ann Marchand created an Every Child Matters original piece of artwork for students to colour in to honour the children. 

Staff across North Vancouver schools thanked Baker and the NVSD Indigenous Education Team for their teachings and guidance.

Baker posted to Twitter that after visiting schools on June 2, his "heart was full."

Support resources available:

  • A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support former students and those affected. To access emotional and crisis referral services, call the 24-hour national crisis line at 1.866.925.4419.
  • Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous specific crisis line, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1.800.588.8717
  • The school district also offers a Social Emotional Learning and Mental Health website for resources to support children, youth and families process stressful events.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.