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'215 empty chairs': North Van schools create touching displays after Kamloops discovery

June 04, 2021

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Two hundred and fifteen chairs line the field at North Vancouver's École Braemar Elementary on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. The installation follows news of the mass grave of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. | Sandra Singh

By Elisia Seeber, North Shore News.

Two hundred and fifteen empty chairs were lined up at a North Vancouver school this week.

Each chair to represent one of the young lives discovered in an unmarked mass grave at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

This week, schools across the North Shore have come together for meaningful learning experiences and memorials to honour the children.

“215 empty chairs. 215 lost dreams and 215 lost bright futures. We will remember … always the 215 lost children.” Principal Sandra Singh of École Braemar Elementary wrote on Twitter.

Singh said the Braemar school staff were deeply saddened by the devastating news from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and under the leadership of Lisa Pedersen, grade 1/2 teacher, staff strongly felt it was important to honour the 215 lives lost by creating an installation of 215 chairs.

“Students placed a cedar bough on each empty chair in memory of each child,” she said.  

First Nations support worker Gordon Dick of Squamish Nation also led the Coast Salish anthem for staff.

Singh said it was “good healing for the heart.”

“We stand together in unity and understand the work we need to do together,” she said.

At Seymour Heights Elementary, Grade 1 students made a large heart with nature materials to honour those Indigenous children who never came home.

“We talked about residential schools and thought about how children should feel at school,” Grade 1 teacher Katie Nicholls wrote on Twitter.

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At Seymour Heights Elementary School, Grade 1 students made a large heart with nature materials to honour those Indigenous children who never came home. | Katie Nicholls

Through discussions, Sanj Johal, Seymour Heights principal, said one young student made an eye-opening realization.

"Our school has 250 kids,” the student said. “There were 215 kids found in Kamloops. That is almost our entire school!"

He said many meaningful conversations were being had.

“Through an open heart and an open mind, we offer dialogue and space to learn the truth and to understand the impacts of residential schools and our shared past, present, and future,” Johal said.

Across North Vancouver schools and throughout B.C., students and staff have also been wearing orange in memory of the 215 Indigenous children. The movement, which aligns with Orange Shirt Day and is being encouraged by the BC Teachers’ Federation, is spreading across the province to raise awareness, help spark conversations, and to send the message that “Every Child Matters.”

Along with other schools, a sea of orange could be seen at École Larson Elementary on June 3. Conversations of truth have been happening across all grade levels at the school this week, said vice-principal Amelia Poitras.

“One class created an art installation sending a message of peace and hope for the souls to be finally set free,” she said.

“On Wednesday, we wore Orange to stand in memory of every child lost-the 215, and those who have yet to be set free.”

Tsonomot, Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education, said the Indigenous education team was guiding teachers through this difficult time.

The team has created a grade-appropriate resource guide that has been sent to teachers and staff to support them as they have thoughtful and sensitive conversations about the tragic event and the history of the residential school system.

To help support conversations in the classroom, Indigenous education team member and artist Ann Marchand created an Every Child Matters original piece of artwork for students to colour in to honour the children. 

Staff across North Vancouver schools thanked Baker and the NVSD Indigenous Education Team for their teachings and guidance.

Support resources available:

  • A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support former students and those affected. To access emotional and crisis referral services, call the 24-hour national crisis line at 1.866.925.4419.

  • Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous specific crisis line, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1.800.588.8717. 

  • The school district also offers a Social Emotional Learning and Mental Health website for resources to support children, youth and families process stressful events.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.