Editor’s note: This article contains some disturbing details about experiences at residential schools in Canada and may be upsetting to some readers. For those in need of emotional support, the 24-hour Residential Schools Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
CALGARY – Some of the shoes memorializing the children who died at residential schools have gone missing from the steps of Calgary’s City Hall.
Despite the weight the memorial carries, one woman who keeps an eye on the site holds no resentment for whoever took the shoes.
“I want to think that they were taken for a good reason. For a purpose, because they either needed it or perhaps they reminded them of a loved one whose life is gone,” said Autumn Eaglespeaker, a grassroots activist who’s adding shoes to the memorial.
“A family member could definitely go there and feel a part of them and maybe taking a piece of that home with them fills their heart, and so looking at it through a different lens of compassion and understanding, and seeing the whole systemic picture and how that affects everyone in different ways, is the way that I’m trying to look at it.”
The memorial, set up earlier this year, follows recent discoveries of unmarked graves at residential school sites that continue to traumatize Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.
The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan found 751 unmarked graves at a former residential school.
Eaglespeaker has been visiting Calgary memorial about once a week, removing garbage and debris and adding shoes to the collection.
“I’m viewing them almost the same way as being representative of these lives that have been missing and never got to return home.”
She hopes to see a permanent memorial for residential school survivors and their families to mourn and pay tribute.
“The other possibility is to have two children, whether they’re sculptured or whether through dolls to be on display in the federal building, with the story attached so that we don’t forget what happened to these children and what happened as part of Canada’s dark history,” said Josie Nepinak, a residential school survivor and executive director of Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society.
The mayor’s office says the city is working with Indigenous leaders on a long-term plan for the memorial but didn’t share any details yet.
In the meantime, Eaglespeaker is encouraging others to visit the site and add shoes.
“It’s really important to keep this message going so by continuing to place the shoes in memorial of these lives that have been lost. I think is a good way to keep people’s awareness and focus up,” she said.
“And then having it just grow shows just the vast number of children that went to residential school and didn’t return home.”
– With files from Stefanie Lasuik