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When the ‘unimaginable’ is all too imaginable

Rob Shaw: Green MLA and Tsartlip First Nation member Adam Olsen’s speech about the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children will be studied for a long time. Ironically, last year the NDP focused a lot of effort and resources into unseating him.
MLA Adam Olsen (BC Green Caucus)

Politicians across the country lined up Monday to express shock and horror at the discovery of an unmarked grave of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, but few spoke with Green MLA Adam Olsen’s eloquence, heartbreak, or personal experience.

Olsen stood and delivered what will likely go down as one of the most powerful speeches ever seen in the B.C. legislature, as he implored the provincial and federal governments to do more to help First Nations respond to the residential school atrocities, with immediate trauma and healing services, the restoration of their languages and support for their houses of governance.

It’s hard to do the speech justice, even at only 10 minutes long. Watching it should be mandatory in the provincial education curriculum.

“The words I’m going to speak today aren’t easy, and they are direct,” Olsen began.

He revealed his grandparents and relatives were survivors of the Kuper Island residential school, off Vancouver Island.

“I know that they'd want me here today honouring the horrors that they lived through by demanding accountability for them,” he said.

Olsen is from the Tsartlip nation, on the Saanich Peninsula. The 45-year-old has been involved in politics in his First Nation, his municipality of Central Saanich, and at the legislature, where he’s been twice elected as the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.

He knows his stuff at every level, and he didn’t hesitate to call out the descriptions used by others in the legislature when it came to residential schools.

“There was a statement from this institution that noted the ‘unimaginable proportions’ of this tragedy,” he said.

“This is an incredibly unfortunate characterization of the situation that we carry. For Indigenous People, this story is not shocking nor is it ‘unimaginable.’ This is the trauma our families have carried for generations.”

The story of the 215 young bodies found outside a Kamloops school once run by the Roman Catholic Church is not new to aboriginal peoples who have for decades grappled with the thousands of children taken away from their communities and who never returned from residential schools, said Olsen.

“It has been in the imagination — indeed, in the nightmares — of our relatives for the past 130 years,” he said. “It is the terror that our ancestors have lived with.

“The only reason to call it ‘unimaginable’ would be because these institutions, these Crown governments, federal and provincial governments, and the people that populate these chambers in the past either haven't been listening to our stories, or they've cared less, because it is a reality in our country that some children have mattered less. These are both terrible considerations.”

Olsen read into the record quotes from B.C.’s first Lieutenant-Governor following Confederation, Joseph Trutch, who once said, "I think they are the ugliest and laziest creatures I ever saw, and we should as soon think of being afraid of our dogs as of them." Then he noted Trutch’s name is honoured on a plaque right outside the legislative chamber’s front door.

B.C. and Canada has come far since then, said Olsen, but not far enough.

The work of reconciliation is slow. The recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, during which many residential school survivors shared their stories, still have not been fully implemented by the provincial or federal governments.

There’s a reason for the slowness, said Olsen. And it is ugly.

“It's not that we haven't done anything - we've started the work,” he said.

“But have we really moved as quickly as you would expect after hearing these horrors?

“We know that if these children were not Indigenous but rather European, that we would not have been slow to act.

“I see on social media my friends and colleagues sharing graphics agreeing that all children matter. Yet deep down, we know that in our society it's just a fact: in Canada and British Columbia, some children matter less.

“We know underneath the shiny, happy facade of Canada and British Columbia, there lurks a grotesque and shameful past. For 30 years, my relatives have been sharing their experiences from these despicable institutions. For 30 years, those stories have been hushed. Our relatives have been told that Canadians and British Columbians don't want to hear their stories. They've been told to stop lying. They've been told to stop embellishing.”

Atrocities like residential schools contribute to the inability of many First Nations people to  simply “pick ourselves up” and live in our modern society as if nothing happened, said Olsen.

The work done to make these wrongs right has not been enough, he said. And it’s contributing to the crises that exist in aboriginal communities across the province.

“I wish I could say that Indigenous children are no longer forcibly removed from their communities - however, I can't,” said Olsen.

“I wish I could say that Indigenous People were not dramatically overrepresented in fatalities at the hands of police, the criminal justice system, homelessness, suicide, addictions, and drug poisoning, all statistics you don't want to ever be overrepresented in."

It was a masterful speech, weaving together an atrocious legacy of genocide that stains Canada’s history, and drawing vivid examples of the lasting impacts right onto the floor of the legislature for all 87 MLAs to hear.

It was also once again a reminder of how fortunate the legislature is to have an MLA with the background and experience of Olsen in a leading role.

Yet his presence there has never been a sure thing.

He placed third in the 2013 election, finishing 379 votes behind New Democrat Gary Holman. Still, he persevered and captured the seat in 2017.

But Olsen never really got along with Premier John Horgan in the minority NDP-Green power-sharing deal. He became a personal target of the premier in October’s surprise election - which was in part designed to throw enormous resources into a campaign to wipe Olsen and fellow B.C. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau off the electoral map.

Thank goodness the NDP were not successful.

The province is better for Olsen’s presence in the legislature. Monday’s speech was yet another example.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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