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Jan. 28, 2022 | Friday
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School memorial mourns deaths of 215 Indigenous children
Megan Vanderlee and her children John, Claire and Sam place children’s shoes at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School on Tuesday. (Richard Harley)

A Niagara-on-the-Lake mother has helped organize a memorial at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School, placing children's shoes near the front entrance in recognition of the 215 Indigenous children found buried at a residential school in British Columbia.

As of Wednesday morning, 81 pairs of shoes had been added and Megan Vanderlee expects more will be added over the next month.

The Virgil resident said she felt strongly that she had to make a public statement about the discovery.

“This community has to recognize it. We need to take some efforts to make a mark, make it known that you want the names (of the children) back,” Vanderlee told The Lake Report outside the memorial.

She wants people to visit, pay their respects and add more shoes to the display.

“I’d like people to come and have their own moment. To bring their shoes, with their kids and reflect and visualize the damage done by one school,” she said.

When the time comes for the shoes to be removed Vanderlee hopes she can send them somewhere meaningful in the Indigenous community.

“I wanted to find out who they could be of use for locally – at a women’s shelter or the native centre. You know, a child is a child is a child,” she said.

Vanderlee blamed long-burning cultural divisions for enabling atrocities like this.

“We’ve got to quit separating caring for children by where they’re from or what language they speak,” she said.

She emphasized she does not want the Virgil memorial to take away from the attention the Indigenous community deserves. “This is their pain and our wrong,” she said.

Vanderlee’s kids all attended St. Michael and were on hand to help set up the memorial.

When Vanderlee’s son John, 14, heard the news he researched exactly what the numbers could mean.

“Johnny said to me, ‘215 kids, mom?’ and I said ‘Yeah, at one school,’ ” she said.

There were 139 residential schools in Canada.

“I don’t really understand what it’s like to lose a kid, because I am a kid,” John Vanderlee said.

“But I know it’s pretty big and important to the whole country that we know about this.”

The Roman Catholic church ran the Kamloops school where the bodies were found.

School principal Janice Barretto Mendonca said she supports the shoe memorial and hopes it raises awareness of Indigenous people’s issues, but she stopped short of apologizing on behalf of the institution she works for.

“That would be up to the Pope and the church,” she said. “(Justin) Trudeau and the government and all of those people need to make those steps for us in our community.”

Mendonca said the school teaches about Indigenous culture and history.

“We are doing it year-round. We have embedded Indigenous teaching and learning into our curriculum.”

The school teaches about the residential school system through Orange Shirt Day in September, how colonialism has stolen Indigenous land and makes a land acknowledgment announcement every morning.

Vanderlee was more vocal about the lack of an apology or recognition of the deaths from the Roman Catholic church.

“The church itself is dripping in opulence and our schools are underfunded. So, are we really on the same team?” she said.

“But reserves don’t even have clean drinking water. So, how can I demand more when others have so much less?”