WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Cree leadership in northern Quebec is moving to secure the sites of the two earliest residential schools in the province and say they plan to lead an investigation and demand full co-operation from governments and churches.
Local and regional Cree leadership took part in a live stream Monday to respond to the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., and to lay out their demands regarding the two residential schools which operated near Chisasibi from the 1930s to the 1970s and early 1980s.
"Words will not be enough as the bodies of more children are unearthed," said Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, adding the Cree Nation will accept nothing less than full co-operation from both levels of government and the Catholic and Anglican churches.
"We will need to honour all these brave students," he said, adding that as the investigation moves forward, special care will be needed not to re-traumatize former students and their families.
We need to honour all these brave students. - Abel Bosum, Cree Nation Grand Chief
"We need to be especially careful with our youth and our elders," said Bosum.
Cree leadership also laid out seven demands for action, including:
an acknowledgement of genocide, intergenerational trauma and systemic racism.
a provincial pedagogical review.
more mental and land-based healing services.
the creation of Indian Residential School Museums in Montreal and Quebec City.
The two residential schools operated for more than 40 years on Fort George Island, the former site of the community before the town was forced to relocate in the early 1980s as a result of hydroelectric development.
"The knowledge that the remains of children will be found on grounds in our community…children that were taken away from distant homes is almost too much to bear," said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House, who also took part in the live stream, along with the heads of the Cree School Board and Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.
House said technology similar to that used in Kamloops could eventually be used on Fort George Island, but Cree leadership will follow the recommendations of local survivor support groups and elders in the management of the sites and determining next steps.
"Chisasibi has a solemn obligation to these children, their families and their people," said House, who also said the hope is to reach out to the families and communities of all the former students and to commemorate the sites in a way that won't re-traumatize survivors and their families.
"What do I say to a grandmother, who to this day gets upset when we disturb the footprints of a child, because during the most painful time in her life all she could do was preserve the footprints of her children as long as she could?" said House.
Calls for land-based healing
St. Philip's Indian Residential School (Anglican) operated from 1933-75. The Fort George Roman Catholic Residential School (also known as Ste. Therese de l'Enfant Jesus school) operated from 1937-81, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The centre has records that there are the remains of 16 former students buried on Fort George Island.
For Bertie Wapachee, the chair of the Cree health board, it's no accident both residential schools on the island closed not long after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed by Quebec Cree Nation in 1975.
Our land is healing. - Bertie Wapachee, Chairperson of the Cree health board
He said it is long past time for there to be local land-based treatment centres in Cree communities and less need to "follow the dangerous practice of sending people away in the name of helping them."
"Our land is a healing land and it does not make sense that in 2021, we still do not have a land-based treatment facility or programs needed to help our people manage old wounds," he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
The Cree health board operates the Wiichihiiwaauwin (Mental Health Helpline) at 1-833-632-4357. Support is available in Cree 24/7.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.