Hundreds of people rallied at the Ontario legislature then marched through downtown Toronto on Sunday to honour the lives of 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, an organizer of the rally and march and an intergenerational survivor, said the peaceful event was called "Bring Our Children Home" and it was an attempt to bring together Indigenous people, their allies, survivors of intergenerational trauma and survivors of residential schools.
"It's really a chance for our community to gather and to heal," she said.
"It's been an incredibly trying year for many of our residential school survivors who haven't been able to leave their homes because they are seniors. And then to come across this news, it brings up so much trauma for them," she said.
"It's also a chance for folks, the broader Canadian public, to understand the severity and the gravity of the situation. The 215 children represent stories that our survivors have had for many decades, talking about children that never came home, children that were murdered, children that died through premature causes within the schools and who never received adequate burial."
The news of the discovery, made public by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. on May 27, is validating for survivors but also tragic, she added. The remains were buried in unmarked sites on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
At the rally, people listened to speakers at Queen's Park, then walked to the statue of Egerton Ryerson at Ryerson University, stopping at Yonge-Dundas Square, where there was drumming and singing.
Ryerson has been called an "architect" of the residential school system in Canada. His statue was vandalized and splattered with red paint last week.
There are hundreds of pairs of shoes at the base at the statue and they form a memorial to the children whose lives were lost at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The institution, run by the Roman Catholic Church, was the largest residential school in Canada.
In a statement on Twitter, Ryerson University said: "We share in the grief & sorrow of our community at the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children near Kamloops, and acknowledge that further and ongoing reconciliation is of vital importance.
"Recognizing this urgency, the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force is committed to delivering a final report, including recommendations regarding the statue and name of the university, before the upcoming fall semester."
Discovery of remains called 'wakeup call' for Canadians
Olson-Pitawanakwat said the discovery of the remains sheds light on the term "cultural genocide." She noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) used the term in its report.
"There is a hesitation on the part of the Canadian government and public to come to terms with what that means," she said. "It is a wakeup call for this country that the Canada we benefit from today is based on a very sad and tragic history of racism and institutional racism that continues on today."
There were 130 residential schools in Canada that potentially contain the remains of Indigenous children, she said.
Kiyana Johnston, a youth organizer of the rally and march, said young people want justice for "atrocious" wrongs committed against Indigenous people by the Canadian government.
"We are here to have justice for the 215 children that were discovered at the Kamloops residential school. We are also here to demand justice for cultural genocide. These people should be held accountable," she said.
"As a youth in our community, we are going to continue to practise our culture, our traditions and our teachings. We are here for a very long time."
Johnston added that an apology at this point is meaningless. "An apology is nothing to us. An apology should have been done years ago, not in 2021."
She said she feels emotional about the discovery of the remains. "We are going to get justice."
Earlier on Sunday, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto, said the church is working toward reconciliation with Indigenous people about the abuse suffered by children and families during the residential school system.
From the 19th century until the last school closed in 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak Indigenous languages.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at the schools, based on death records, but has said the true total is likely much higher. The TRC said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
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.