Ville Emard high school finds novel way to honour residential school victims

A Ville Emard alternative high school is used to doing things differently, and they kept to that spirit while honouring children whose remains were found on the site of a former residential school in British Columbia. 

On Thursday, Options High School held a special memorial for the 215 children. Getting down and dirty in the school yard, they did 215 burpees, together in unison, to symbolize getting up off the ground for those who couldn’t.

The students said they imagined it was a tiny glimpse of the struggle and suffering those young students endured decades ago. 

“The burpee requires you get down to the ground and then to rise-up and what we want to today, in honouring these 215 children is we want to rise for those forced down, we want to speak for voices that were stolen and we want to change their history, we want it to live on, instead of being buried," said Jason Gannon, a teacher and the event’s co-organizer. “Somebody tried to erase them from history. They were abused, malnourished, starved and buried.”

Gannon came up with this plan with his student, Casey Bossum, whose family is Cree and hails from the James Bay area. Bossum's paternal grandmother was traumatized at a residential school.

Although Bossum was shy to tell the story to all his classmates, his father, John, did.

“When I heard about these 215 bodies, I cried right away thinking, 'What if it was my son?'" said John Bossum with tears in his eyes.

Though his mother survived the residential school, her trauma bled into her family.

“I've never known love, my mom never loved me, my mother never embraced me, hugged me or kissed me or enouraged me," the elder Bossum told the high school students.

He also talked about his own time at a school in Chibaugamau during the 1970s.

“I remember that principal came to me and she said 'By the time we're done, we're going to make you forget about your language,'" he said.

Fueled by the emotion in the Bossum family story, Options High School students and staff hit the pavement and did the 215 burpees together to the beat of a First Nations drum. 

Now, the challenge is to get other schools across Canada to host their own #215Burpee events, to help keep the memory alive and pay tribute to the victims who have yet to be found ..

As John Bossum said between tears, “The truth needs to be told and needs to be heard.”