Indigenous leaders are calling for an examination of every former residential school site after the discovery of 215 children’s remains at one location in British Columbia. Confirming the identities of those who lie in unmarked graves and returning their remains to family are integral parts of truth and reconciliation, they say.
The grim discovery last week at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has elicited a profound reaction across the country. Memorials sprang up in cities across Canada, with displays of children’s shoes and teddy bears to mark the young lives lost.
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, said residential school survivors and their families “deserve to know the truth and the opportunity to heal” from the loss of children who died.”
A thorough investigation into all former residential school sites could lead to more truths of the genocide against our people,” Mr. Bellegarde said in statement.
Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, a member of the Kingfisher First Nation, said all Indigenous people living in Canada today are “survivors of Canada’s tools of genocide,” and that the country, and its governments and institutions, must own up to its past. He called on governments to work with First Nations at every residential school site to “look for our lost children.”
“It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools – an open secret that Canadians can no longer look away from,” Mr. Mamakwa said in a statement. “In keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Projects, every school site must be searched for the graves of our ancestors.”
The Tk’emlups te Secweepemc First Nation first began working to locate the remains at the former Kamloops residential school site in B.C.’s southern interior 20 years ago. The work was able to be done now with funding from a provincial Pathway to Healing grant, and new ground-penetrating radar technology. The nation announced the findings late last week.
Kukpi7 (chief) Rosanne Casimir said the findings substantiated what those in the community had long known, but had never been officially documented.
“It’s a harsh reality, and it’s our truths. It’s our history, and it’s something … we’ve always had to fight to prove,” Ms. Casimir said at a news conference on Friday.
More than 130 schools operated across Canada between the 1870s and 1996, and as many as 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were sent to them, despite the pleas of their parents and families. The TRC identified 4,100 children who died of diseases or accidents while at the schools. Estimates of children who went missing from the schools are as high as 6,000.
Katherine Ainsley Morton, a PhD candidate and instructor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who specializes in the residential school system, said it is critical the investigation of residential school grounds continues, so long as it is done in a culturally appropriate and respectful way.
“That’s pretty clear by the Indigenous groups that are working on this, the First Nations that have taken up this work. It is so fundamentally important to any sort of community well-being to ensure that these children are found,” said Ms. Morton, referring to them as inmates, rather than students.
Unmarked burial sites have been found at other former schools, including those located in the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, Fort Albany, Ont., and Brandon, Man. At the latter, 11 children went missing from before 1929 through to 1957.
“Right now, families have these long-standing uncertainties about what actually happened to their children. No family in Canada should ever experience that,” Ms. Morton said.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations on Sunday announced that it would launch its own radar ground searches of multiple residential school sites in Saskatchewan and called on governments to assist.
In Vancouver, Mayor Kennedy Stewart called on the federal government to fund the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s efforts at the Kamloops site, and for all residential school sites in Canada to be expertly examined under the guidance of local First Nations.
“As this was a state-caused tragedy, we need to make sure that, at all residential schools, this kind of work is undertaken,” said Mr. Stewart, adding that he would be speaking with B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin late Sunday to determine what roles the city and province can play.
However, there are legalities involved with mass graves, as well as international guidelines for dealing with them as potential crime scenes. The University of Bournemouth in England has developed widely accepted protocols for safeguarding and investigating such sites around the world, as well as identifying and repatriating the bodies.
The work must be done in a systematic way, using the accepted protocols and be led by the federal government, rather than provincial coroners who investigate most deaths, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.
“At this point there is no legal framework. We’re in a complete vacuum. Whether it’s on the regulation of the standards for the technology that’s used, who deploys the technology, what evidence they collect and the continuity of the evidence – in case there is responsibility and accountability,” said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, a law professor and former judge.
On the request of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, flags on all federal buildings, including the Peace Tower, were lowered to half-mast to honour those who died at the former Kamloops residential school “and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors and their families.”
Flags were also lowered at city halls and legislatures across Canada, with some mayors, including those of Edmonton and Ottawa, saying they would remain at half-mast for 215 hours – “one hour for every child whose life was taken,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said.
Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain called the unmarked graves a national tragedy.
“[This] serves as a stark reminder of the attempted genocide of Indigenous people in this country,” Mr. Brain said in a statement. “These poor children didn’t even have a chance. It is so tragic, heartbreaking and sad. It is crimes against humanity.”
The union representing B.C.’s 45,000 public-school teachers has asked its members to wear orange this week to commemorate the 215 children and make a ”visual statement in support for Indigenous communities,” said BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring. It has also asked school districts to fly flags at half-mast, and for teachers throughout the week to walk into the building together each morning in a statement of solidarity.
The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.
ANDREA WOO AND JEFFREY JONES
The Globe and Mail, May 30, 2021