What crosses your mind as you pass through the west end of Brocket and see the memorial display on the fence line? Does the row of shoes, tobacco ties and shirts grab your attention or has it faded and become one with the background?
When passing by, my mind always goes back to the June evening in 2021 when the sky blazed orange and Brenda Shenton captured the amazing image below — a pair of black-and-white child’s shoes against a brilliant orange sunset. No enhancement was applied to the photo — you are seeing exactly what we saw that night.
Never had the need for truth and reconciliation been stronger than in the weeks following the 2021 discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. It was not only the Indigenous people fighting for recognition and rights, it was non-Indigenous Canadians from coast to coast demanding answers and action.
While residential school history was, in reality, only one conversation with an Indigenous person away, the topic was seldom in the public eye. Suddenly it presented itself boldly and unapologetically, with a ferocity matching that orange sky.
Truths carried by generations of Indigenous people affected by the residential school system were now unequivocally told to an audience that was receptive and ready to listen. Efforts to kill the Indian in the child were on display under a harsh international spotlight and, fuelled by anger and empathy, were shared from coast to coast and beyond.
Some were embarrassed, apologetic or both, while others denied history. Whatever the case, ugliness was front and centre in the boldest of colours, and was inspiring change and demanding action.
People of all cultures made a conscious effort to learn more and to support the need for truth and reconciliation.
It was a necessary first step.
While past actions and ignorance can’t be changed, we can do better going forward. Whether we learned about residential schools as part of our education or only recently, today is the time for meaningful action. The truths we know now demand attention, and bright orange serves as a reminder.
The energy exuding from the image of a blazing sky behind a tiny pair of runners hanging from barbed wire and the feeling it continues to bring to me two years later, is what inspires me to persist in contributing to truth and reconciliation efforts.
In case one is inclined to forget, the teddy bears hanging at the roadside in Piikani Nation also keep things fresh.
Piikani elders are gracious when sharing their knowledge, some speaking for the first time about their experiences. Those inclined to listen may learn about the Creator, Mother Earth, family relations, knowledge keeping and the Ksi ski ni (bald eagle).
Many have learned about residential school history and reflected on its impact.
Many have shown new respect to Indigenous people in our community.
Many have attended powwows and looked beyond the regalia to learn the meaning of the dances and the honour songs.
Many have a new understanding of the addictions and mental health challenges that affect Indigenous people.
Many have newfound respect and have allowed dignity based on what has been learned.
Many have acknowledged the truth that Indigenous women and girls have a higher risk of being victims of violence and homicide than non-Indigenous females.
Many have examined personal biases and strive to do better.
And many are teaching their children difficult history lessons and moulding them into people who will be inspired to make change.
Every action is commendable.
For the Indigenous and for us all, there is new hope, but it will be generations more before reconciliation can lead to true healing of deep wounds.
Indigenous people have fought for change for many years. Our job is to uplift their voices and to fight alongside them. We can contribute by amplifying their voices in spaces where they aren’t heard and help address the changes, wants and needs that are their reality. We can keep the stories alive and make sure history does not repeat itself.
What strikes me now, when passing the roadside monument, is one particular T-shirt. Once bright orange, two years in the elements has faded it to nearly white. Despite being tattered and torn by an environment beyond its control, it still exudes a sense of pride from its place on the barbed-wire fence.
People were driven to action by the vivid orange. But it seems the spirit of support is fading along with the shirt. Good intentions are fading.
The next time you drive through Piikani Nation, why not see that ragged shirt as a symbol of resilience and perseverance? Imagine it in brilliant colour and let it motivate you to help create a brighter future.
Letting truth and reconciliation intentions fade away is like killing the Indian in the child all over again.
Let’s see orange together.
Since 2021, the colour has all but disappeared from these shoes. September 2023 photo by Shannon Peace.
Visual presentation of this article published in the Oct. 4, 2023 print issue of Shootin’ the Breeze.