A small selection of shoes line a step at the municipal government building in Sylvan Lake. The shoes overlook a nearby playground, honouring the lost souls who never had the chance to play there.
Tracey Grienke of Sylvan Lake placed a pair moccasins on the steps of town hall, as a memorial for the children taken to the residential schools and never returned. She hopes to see the steps full of shoes in the coming days.
“I look at the playground here [in Lions Legacy Park] and wonder if they ever had the chance to play at a playground with their family,” she said.
Grienke says when she heard about the unmarked, mass grave found at a residential school in British Columbia, she was both heartbroken and thankful.
Finding the grave site of 215 children, and all those found afterwards, means those children can finally be put to rest, she said.
“It sounds weird I know, but I felt a sense of relief. We found you, we see you,” Grienke said.
Grienke says the residential schools worked exactly as they were supposed to, and made those who survived their time there ashamed of their heritage and culture.
Her grandmother was sent to a residential school, and came out deculturized with no native customs, she said.
“It worked too well. I didn’t even know I was Native until I was older. My grandma rarely, if ever, spoke about their time in school. My grandma once mentioned a residential school and I had to research it myself,” she said.
She said her grandmother was one of the lucky ones who came home from the residential schools.
Grienke recalls her grandmother rarely speaking about her time at the residential school she attended in Saskatchewan, but remembers her saying children would routinely disappear.
Children would be there one day and the next they would be gone, “never seen or heard from again,” Grienke says.
“They would come for the kids in the night, and they were grateful it wasn’t them, that they weren’t chosen…”
Much of her culture and tradition was discovered through personal research. She has taken classes to learn about her heritage. One instance of discovery was finding out her relative Gabriel Dumont was an important figure in Canadian and Indigenous history, as the prominent leader of the Métis people and politician.
“We should learn through the teachings of our elders, it should be passed down through the family, but because of the residential schools so much has been forgotten, erased.”
The residential schools are not only a piece of Canadian history, Grienke says, they are one of many important issues facing the Indigenous people, and also present the issue of inter-generational trauma facing them.
“What has happened is in the past, we need to move forward and learn from it. It was shameful and demoralizing, but it shouldn’t be hidden away like it has been,” Grienke said.
The woman hopes the memorial will have people stop and think about what happened, and hopefully take the step to learning more about Canada’s history, and that of its Indigenous people.
“It is important to learn about what happened. It is in our past yes, but it is still very recent.”
As more bodies of Indigenous children are found across Canada, Grienke felt laying a pair of moccasins on the steps of town hall would symbolize those children taken before their time.
Everyone is welcome and encouraged to place a pair of shoes at the memorial, with each pair representing a victim of residential schools.