Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
Like people across the country, Briann Gagnon wanted to place a pair of children’s shoes on the steps of the local Catholic Church in remembrance of the 215 Indigenous children whose bodies were found buried at the Kamploops Indian Residential School site.
But when she pulled up to St Joseph’s Cathedral Parish in Fort Smith, a man tried to stop her. When she explained the reason why she wanted to leave a pair of shoes, she told Cabin Radio, the man ignored her – and threw the shoes in a dumpster behind the church.
Father Cornelius Ngurukwem, the church’s reverend, was not aware of the situation when first contacted by Cabin Radio. He later helped Ramanda Sanderson, who climbed in the dumpster to retrieve the shoes and teddy bears, and Cayleen Adam put the items back on the front steps of the church.
“My mom went to residential school for four years,” Gagnon told Cabin Radio. “So it really hits home, just knowing and hearing about everything.”
When Gagnon pulled up to the church on Tuesday afternoon, she said the man pulled up right behind her vehicle and “locked it in.”
The man was identified as local electrician Phil Tesdale. Reached by phone, Tesdale declined to comment on the incident. He was described by residents as the caretaker of the church grounds.
Gagnon added a pair of black boots to the memorial and was taking a photo when she heard Tesdale tell her to put all of the shoes from the memorial in her vehicle, she said, adding that shoes placed at the memorial over the weekend had been disappearing but nobody knew who was responsible.
“I said, ‘No, do you realize what the shoes are for?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but it’s garbage,’” she recalled.
Gagnon said Tesdale asked her who was going to clean up the shoes and complained about others who have left alcohol bottles on church property in the past.
She said she tried to further explain about the children whose remains were discovered by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation last Thursday and that she was paying her respects.
“This is our church,” she said he told her in response.
Gagnon told him she would come back and remove the memorial later, even offering to give the man her phone number.
“Just let them stay on the steps,” she pleaded. Instead, she said, he walked up, took the shoes, put them in the back of his truck, drove to the dumpster, and tossed them in the garbage.
“I just stood there and cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.
“In a time where everybody’s supposed to be coming together and healing, this is not the way things should be. People should be able to feel comfortable expressing themselves and healing together. And then it’s just actions like this that prevent healing. We can’t move forward because things are happening like this.”
Tesdale’s employer, a local construction company, told Cabin Radio the reported incident was “terrible” and would be further investigated.
By Tuesday night, more than a dozen pairs of shoes had been returned to the memorial, including Gagnon’s little black boots.
“I just got my kids back home from school and we’re going be heading down with more shoes as well,” she said after the confrontation, expressing gratitude that the community was coming together and standing behind her.