This story is by Susan J Liddle and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Bye Mom! Hey Auntie Mag! I’m free for the whole summer!”
Maggie waved at Janet as she backed out of the driveway. She grinned at Lily and led her into the house, pausing for a brief hug so as not to interfere with her fidgety bouncing.
“Your mom’s picking you up after supper?”
“Yes,” replied Lily, setting her knapsack on the bench in the front hall.
“So would you like to—”
Lily bounced once for each exuberant word: “Time! Capsule! Supper!”
Maggie laughed. “Sounds good. Let’s go see what we can find in Gran’s cookbook.”
They pored over the stained pages, finally settling on meat and potato patties, a dish Maggie could remember Gran cooking regularly.
Later, Maggie brought the dusty box of Canada Day decorations up from under the basement stairs and placed it in the front hall.
“Want to help me put these up?” she asked Lily.
Lily knelt and took out the big Canadian flag, the one Maggie usually strung between two trees in the front yard.
“Are you sure you want to put these up, Auntie Mag?” Lily asked.
“Why wouldn’t we?”
Lily said, “We were talking at school about some people not celebrating Canada Day this year.”
“Oh,” said Maggie. “I heard about that. I’m not certain how I feel about it.”
Lily glanced at her. “My friend, Jenny, was sad this week,” said Lily.
“Because of the kids’ bodies that they found at the residential schools. Jenny’s grandma lives with her. She went to residential school,” said Lily.
“It is sad,” said Maggie. “Did your teachers talk about it?”
“A bit. Ms. Carillo told us if we had questions, we could ask her.”
Maggie hesitated. “And did you?”
Lily looked at her, head tilted. “Do you know about residential schools? Ms. Carillo said most grown-ups didn’t learn about them at school.”
“I know a little,” said Maggie. “Not from history class. From reading and listening to the radio. There were some terrible things done.” Maggie wondered how much she should say. She didn’t want to traumatize Lily. “Residential schools were boarding schools run by the government and churches, a long time ago.”
“Ms. Carillo said the last one closed in 1996,” said Lily.
“So recently?” Maggie blurted. Then, more slowly, she said, “When I celebrate Canada Day, I think of my mother coming to Canada as a war bride. My father’s parents coming from Scotland to make a new life here. They were so proud to be Canadian. I remember Dad talking about the Liberation of the Netherlands. My uncle who served in the Korean War.”
Lily was quiet, tracing along the red maple leaf with her finger.
Maggie watched Lily for a moment, then stood up. “Let’s leave this stuff for now and have a cup of tea,” she suggested.
They settled at the kitchen table with their mugs of mostly tea and milk for her, mostly milk and tea for Lily. Maggie rested the mug against her forehead before taking a sip. In spite of the warm weather, it felt good. She savoured the familiar aroma of orange pekoe, the taste soothing on her tight throat. She felt her lips tremble against the ceramic.
“I believe Canada is a great place to live,” said Maggie after taking a couple of deep sips. “We’re lucky to live here. Why not celebrate that?”
Lily’s eyes were solemn as she sipped her tea.
Maggie took a deep breath and said, “Lily, will you tell me about what you talked about at school? Help me understand?”
“Okay, Auntie.” Lily gave a small smile and set her mug down carefully.
“Ms. Carillo asked Jenny’s grandma to come and talk to us. She was taken away to school when she was only eight! The teachers cut her braids and took away the special clothes she brought with her. She wasn’t allowed to speak in her own language, even to her brother and sister. She wasn’t allowed to go home for two years. Her brother got punished and then he was just gone. She never saw him again. No one did!”
Lily wasn’t smiling anymore. Her eyes flashed and her voice rose. “Imagine, Auntie, one of those bodies they found could have been Jenny’s grandma’s brother.”
When Lily next spoke, her voice was low. “Auntie, I heard on the radio that people at the schools hit the kids and even sexually assaulted them… even the little kids.”
Maggie’s heart hurt at the idea of this dear eleven-year-old even knowing these things. Imagine if she had to experience them.
“Oh, Honey,” said Maggie, squeezing Lily’s small hand.
Lily squeezed back and continued. “They locked kids up in dark rooms, made them eat spoiled food.” Lily’s voice warbled. “They wouldn’t tell the parents if kids got sick or died.”
Maggie thought of life without Lily for Lily’s parents, for herself. Imagined not seeing her for two years. Imagined her gone.
Lily continued, “The schools were awful! But it wasn’t just the schools, Auntie! For hundreds of years, the government told the Indigenous people what to do, made laws that treated them unfairly. Like, they couldn’t have meetings or parties, they had to stay on the reserve. They couldn’t even leave without special permission. Auntie, they couldn’t all vote until the 1960s. That’s the same decade you were born!”
Startled, Maggie couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure?”
“We can google it,” Lily replied. “I don’t think Jenny’s grandma would lie. There’s so much, Auntie. The government made promises and didn’t keep them. They tricked people. They tried to kill their languages, to make the Indigenous people be just like the settlers who came from other countries. But those settlers just… just came and moved in and took over. When there were already people living here!”
Lily gestured and let her hand drop to the table with a thump, then drank the rest of her tea in one go.
Maggie felt words pressing against her lips, but she held them in. They sounded ridiculous even in her mind: But Canadians are nice! Canadians are helpful, polite, kind. Peacemakers.
Instead, she said, “Lily, Honey. Thank you for telling me about this. Is there more you want to say?”
“Jenny told me that when her grandma finished school, she didn’t know how to cook any of the family’s recipes.”
“Like the ones we have in Gran’s cookbook,” Maggie said.
Lily wiped an angry tear away.
Maggie moved to kneel beside Lily’s chair and wrapped her arms around Lily, swaying.
Lily’s voice was muffled and damp. “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair what we did to them!”
“Come on, little one, let’s go to the couch,” murmured Maggie.
They sat close together, Maggie’s arm around Lily’s shoulders, Lily hugging a pillow to her chest and leaning in close.
Maggie’s mind raced. It was horrifying. But not new. She had heard most of what Lily told her in bits and pieces over the years. How had she never assembled the pieces to glimpse the nightmare?
She considered her own family. They had contributed to the cruelty by voting for leaders who let it keep happening. By standing by, comfortable with how things were, secure that they had a right to be here. Secure in their ignorance.
Her own ignorance.
She wanted to rail against the adults, the government, the schools, for allowing her to live to the age of fifty-five with a false understanding of her own country.
It felt like betrayal. But whose? She had drifted through life, comfortable, privileged and happy to call herself a Canadian. She knew about the reconciliation commission, read the stories that came out. But she never tried to learn more.
Her voice was rusty. “Lily, I—and lots of other people—we consider ourselves to be nice, polite, kind. But the people who did those awful things were not.”
She cleared her throat and said, “I feel like if we want to really be nice and kind, we have to do something. To show that we can be better, do better. But how?”
Lily said, “Jenny’s grandma said one way is to listen to stories by Indigenous people, and to help other people hear. She told us one way to show support is to put up signs that say, ‘Every Child Matters.’”
“Lily, thank you for helping me. You opened my eyes and heart today.”
Lily hugged her tighter.
Maggie continued, “I believe we need to stock up on our summer reading.” She picked up her phone and typed in “Indigenous books for teens and adults” and showed the results to Lily.
“Ready to go to the bookstore?”
Lily dropped the pillow, wiped her eyes and bounced off the couch. “Yes! Can we buy some orange construction paper to make signs to go with the flag?”
“Yes,” said Maggie. “Let’s start with that.”