'Bear witness to the genocide. It's not just 215 children’: Kamloops residential school discovery sparks horror, shame about Canada's racist Indigenous history
After the remains of 215 children were found at the British Columbia site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canadians continue to mourn and call for more action and accountability, particularly from the federal government.
I’ve been quiet. I’ve been reflecting. I’ve been mourning.
A horrid truth we always knew of, now a very gruesome reality. 215 children, with stories, with families, with dreams and fears. 215 children.
My heart is heavy. I pray for our collective comfort and healing.
— audri: she/they (@kloqowej) May 29, 2021
Please advocate and fight on behalf of children everywhere. Don't excuse people in the past for doing "what they thought was right". No one, in any time, can excuse what happened to kids, to families, to humans in this way.
— Wally Bearhead (@BearheadWally) May 30, 2021
My grandfather Angus was taken away to Shingwauk residential school at the age of 4 and ran away at age 14. He is front and centre here. He was lucky to get away. RIP to the 215 recently found. This discovery has reopened old wounds across Canada. Prayers up. #215children pic.twitter.com/gK7SxnIFok
— Joel Abram (@JoelWAbram) May 31, 2021
It's been 14 years since the national apology.
7 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its calls for action.
Have you read the report? Read the report. Bear witness to the genocide. It's not just #215children. https://t.co/h8PgA5GDCN
— Suze Morrison (@SuzeMorrison) May 30, 2021
I keep seeing the news from Kamloops being termed "a dark chapter in Canadian history", hey remember last year when white fishermen were setting fire to Mi'kmaw fishing boats and lobster pounds and poisoning their catches, was that one of the lighter chapters. #215children
— Muin Ji’j 🌺 (@BertramBernard) May 30, 2021
This week, 215 children’s bodies were found at the site of one of the largest Indian Residential Schools in Canada. When I think of the stories I’ve read, this one stands out so strongly. pic.twitter.com/jCxM9JUG1D
— Jarvis Googoo (@JarvisGoogoo) May 29, 2021
How did the Canadian government, politicians respond?
On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement announced that he has asked that the Peace Tower flag and flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast "to honour the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops residential school and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families."
Many Canadians said that this call for flags being flow at half-mast doesn't go far enough.
It’s a thoughtful gesture to acknowledge what happened.
Now, what else is being done to support Indigenous families as they deal with this horrific reminder of the past? More supports NEED to be put in place.
— L. Lewis (@Miss_Elles) May 30, 2021
Now what is your government going to do in the coming weeks to implement each and every one of the TRC calls to action, as well as end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities? This gesture is meaningless without real action.
— Maddie Freedman (@m_freedman13) May 30, 2021
In an open letter to Trudeau, the Siksika Nation Chief and Council has called on the federal government to open an investigation into the 139 residential schools across Canada.
Siksika Nation Chief and Council Open Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation and Kamloops Indian Residential School pic.twitter.com/NahhZogzay
— Siksika Nation (@Siksika_Nation) May 31, 2021
"It is time that all Canadians hold the federal government and Christian denomination groups responsible for the policies that were created to commit crimes against humanity and the genocide of all First Nation groups in Canada," the letter reads.
"We, along with all other First Nation groups in Canada, are still here to tell our stories to all Canadians. We expect the Crown and federal government to act now and honour our on-going and integral relationship."
Speaking to reporters on Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons.
"I grieve with the Indigenous community today, Canada grieves with Indigenous people, and the reality is this is not a surprise, this is the reality of residential school," Singh said.
"This is actually a part of our present, this is a part of today... It is not good enough for the federal Liberal government to just make symbolic gestures to commemorate this horrible loss. We are calling on the federal government to do something concrete."
When asked what his message is to the families who lost loved ones in residential schools Singh, after a long pause, emotionally said: "I'm sorry, we're going to fight for justice for you."
The NDP Leader called on Trudeau to work in partnership with Indigenous communities to fully fund the investigation into other sites.
"Indigenous communities deserve to have the justice of making sure that every site like this is uncovered," Singh said.
He added that the federal government should fund the healing of survivors of residential schools, as part of its reconciliation efforts.
"What has happened to Indigenous people in this country is genocide, there's no question about it," Singh said. "There were clearly systems in place designed to kill them."
'Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident'
Following this criticism, the prime minister said he is "appalled" by the "shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities.
"Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident," Trudeau said. "Residential schools were a reality, a tragedy that existed here in our country and we have to own up to it."
While answering questions from reporters on Monday, the prime minister said an important part of discovering the truth is excavation of resident school burial sites across Canada, promising that there is "more" the federal government will do, but he did not provide extensive specifics or timelines.
"We are committed to reconciliation, we are committed to truth, we are committed to being there to help Indigenous communities understand the past and move forward into the future the right way," Trudeau said. "As there is a need for discovering more we will continue to be there."
"We haven't looked at exactly what the process is or [what] the needs are entirely but Canada will be there to support Indigenous communities as we discover the extent of this trauma and try to give opportunities for families and communities to heal."
The prime minister was also questioned about the federal government continuing to fight a group of survivors of Ontario's St. Anne's Indian Residential School, which was investigated in the 1990s and resulted in convictions of former staff members related to abuse but at that time the documents were not made available to the survivors seeking compensation.
Survivors from this school have continued to fight to reopen the cases related to compensation, in addition to years of actions related to the disclosure of information on residential schools.
"In regards to the trauma of the past years that far too many Indigenous young people have gone through, we recognize that," Trudeau said. "We also...know that there needs to be compensation for those young people, that is not what is at question here."
"One of [the questions], for example, is should someone who went to a day school for a few days in a few months or a year be compensated to the exact same amount of someone who was in a traumatic situation over many, many years where they were taken from their families and had a very, very different experience. Right now the human rights tribunal says everyone should get exactly the same amount, we don't know that that's entirely fair."
Trudeau also said that since his government came to office "hundreds of thousands" of Jordan’s Principle requests have been made. These requests, once approved, provide funding for health, social and educational services for First Nations children in Canada.
Several Canadians took to social media to urge the federal government to stop fighting survivors of residential schools in court.
Knowing what happened to your children is a fundamental truth that must come before any form of reconciliation. Remember the federal government is currently fighting in court its obligation to disclose information it has on residential schools.https://t.co/fow1egFKHx
— Darcy Lindberg (@Darcy13Lindberg) May 28, 2021
If Canada cares, we’ll lower our flags. We’ll have a national week of mourning. We’ll stop fighting Residential School Survivors in court. We’ll act on Truth & Reconciliation.
If Canada cares, we’ll accept this genocide isn’t just our past, but our present too. #215children
— Naheed Dosani (@NaheedD) May 30, 2021
For those wondering, this is the case Trudeau was referring to when he said he doesn't think everyone's trauma is bad enough to warrant the court ordered settlement.
So, instead of $40k to survivors in need, he's giving millions more to lawyers.https://t.co/crkGNCC81e
— George Soule (@G_Soule) May 31, 2021
Your government is literally in court fighting against its obligation to disclose the information it has on residential schools. Hiding something of this magnitude requires a coordinated effort from high-level officials who are likely still alive. Name them.
— Jacob (@mrjacobholloway) May 28, 2021
Are you supporting Indigenous kids’ healing as you fight them in court? https://t.co/ePAm77NbBS
— graeme lamb (@_gmlamb) May 29, 2021
What you need to know about residential schools in Canada
The Canadian government operated residential schools in partnership with a number of churches, including Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches.
Established in the 1880 and in operation into the 20th century, Indigenous children were sent to residential schools as part of assimilation policies, under assumption that First Nation, Inuit and Métis children needed to be able able to adapt to the white Canadian society. A core aspect of these schools was cutting their ties to their culture, families and traditions.
In 1920, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott changed the Indian Act to make it mandatory for children between the ages of seven and 15 to attend residential schools.
"I want to get rid of the Indian problem," Scott said in 1920.
"I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question."
At these schools, children were not allowed to speak their first language. These schools did not receive the same funding as the public school system and were overcrowded with poor sanitation practices, with nutrition experiments carried out on malnourished children at residential schools. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse are all known to be widespread throughout the residential school system.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools in Canada.
Back in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada outlined a number of calls to action to push forward the process of reconciliation. The commission called for several specific actions related to missing children and burial information, including chief coroners and provincial agencies providing records on children who died in the care of residential school authorities.