HURON-PERTH – The discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried in a mass grave in British Columbia has sent shockwaves across mainstream Canada, but this is just the tip of the iceberg according to the Truth and Reconciliation Report.
On May 27, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 issued a statement confirming that the unmarked mass grave discovered beside the Kamloops Indian Residential School held 215 children’s remains, some as young as three-years-old.
“It is with a heavy heart that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir confirms an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented by the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” the statement said.
“This past weekend, with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light – the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
The discovery verifies what Indigenous survivors of the residential school system have believed for decades.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Casimir. “Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
The Tk’emlúpsemc, ‘the people of the confluence,’ now known as the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, are members of the Interior-Salish Secwepemc (Shuswap)-speaking peoples of British Columbia. The Shuswap or Secwepemc (pronounced suh-Wep-muhc) people occupy a vast territory of the interior of British Columbia.
This traditional territory stretches from the Columbia River valley along the Rocky Mountains, west to the Fraser River, and south to the Arrow Lakes. Most Secwepemc people live in the river valleys.
Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) elder and council member Verne Roote expressed his disappointment in the amount of time it has taken for these graves to be investigated.
“It’s disappointing that findings still keep showing up, meaning people do not check enough on previous or known sites,” he told Midwestern News. “How many other sites are still there and ignored in this day and age.”
The legacy left from the residential school system evolved into the Sixties Scoop. The term was coined by Patrick Johnson, author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. It refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.
North Huron Reeve Bernie Bailey stated he was unaware that this was still happening, “I thought it was in the past… I never learned this stuff in school,” he told Midwestern News.
“What the hell is wrong with human beings,” he said when asked for his reaction to the latest news. “That just makes me sick to my stomach.”
North Huron joined Huron and Perth counties to show respect for the discovery by lowering the flags at the government buildings.
North Huron lowered its flags on Monday.
“All flags located on Township of North Huron properties will be flown at half-mast beginning today for 215 hours – one hour for each child whose death was undocumented at the Kamloops Residential School,” stated a press release from the township on May 31.
“Today and over the next nine days, the Township of North Huron will fly our flags at half-mast to acknowledge and pay our respects to the 215 children, their families and all other children who were part of the residential school system. This recent discovery is a devastating reminder of the horrendous treatment that the Canadian residential school system inflicted on Indigenous peoples. Much more remains to be done as a community, and as a country to move towards reconciliation,” said Bailey in the release.
Bailey recently initiated a motion to North Huron council to begin using an Indigenous land acknowledgement at the beginning of township business and encouraged other municipalities to do the same.
The Municipality of North Perth sent out a Tweet, quoting Mayor Todd Kasenberg, “Flags at the North Perth Municipal Office and municipal facilities will be flown at half mast until June 9, 2021, as we honour and mourn the 215 children whose remains were discovered at the former residential school in Kamloops.”
Huron County Warden Glen McNeil, in a press release, stated it is important that we honour Canada’s First Peoples nationally, and at the local level.
“As we reflect, let this tragic event serve as a reminder that we must continue to be committed to Truth and Reconciliation as a nation, as well as in our own communities,” said McNeil.
“The County of Huron acknowledges that the land we stand upon today is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral peoples. We recognize the First Peoples’ continued stewardship of the land and water, and that this territory was subject to the Dish with One Spoon wampum, under which multiple nations agreed to care for the land and resources by the Great Lakes in peace,” stated the county in a press release. “We would also like to acknowledge and recognize the Upper Canada Treaties signed in regard to this land, which include Treaty #29 and Treaty #45 1/2, and our roles as treaty people, committed to moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation, gratitude, and respect with all First Nation, Métis and Inuit people.”
Donalda (Winnie) Ashkewe is a SON member, originally from Cape Croker, now a respected elder in Toronto was a resident at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford.
Known as the “mush hole,” in reference to the main diet of the children that “attended” that residential school, the Mohawk Institute also has an unmarked mass grave of children. Ashkewe remembers her best friend going missing from the school and says she has always felt that she was murdered and buried in the orchard beside the school.
There is a growing number of calls for this ground-penetrating radar to be used at all of the 139 residential school sites to search for the missing children.
Casimir stated, “We are thankful for the Pathway to Healing grant we received to undertake this important work. Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond. We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended are duly informed. This is the beginning but, given the nature of this news, we felt it important to share immediately. At this time, we have more questions than answers. We look forward to providing updates as they become available.”
Biidaabinokwe Jessica Keeshig-Martin, SON member and a relative of residential school survivors, provided the following statement to Midwestern Newspapers:
“I don’t think any of us are prepared for news like this. The death and burial of 215 children at Kamloops Indian Residential school is absolutely horrendous. It hits me hard as an Anishnaabe mother and as a granddaughter to three Residential School survivors. I feel the collective pain of Indigenous people on Turtle Island as we learn of the stories of the children who never came home.
“These schools were set up based on the oppression of Indigenous communities during a very dark time not too far off in the past. It is terrifying to think that the Indian Residential School System is where Canada’s Indigenous child welfare and education system began. This was a system created to subjugate Indigenous nations and is seen as an act of genocide against our peoples. I am angry at the system that caused this and at anyone who upheld/upholds a system like this. There continues to be a considerable need for understanding, healing, and change.
“Genocide and racial oppression on a wide scale occur when the people who have the status in society to be heard are ignorant to what is going on. In 2021, still so many Canadians don’t know about us, about our history of being oppressed and how that impacts us today. I find this to be very disrespectful. There is so much information out there now that has been developed by Indigenous storytellers. We should all know about the Indian Residential School System, we owe it to the children that died, to the survivors, and to the generations of Indigenous people that have been affected.
“Every one of the 215 children that died while in the care of Kamloops Indian Residential School matters, as do all of the children that died and were mistreated while in the care of the Indian Residential School system. Right now, and above all, my heart aches for the children, their families, and communities. They need our kind, positive, and loving thoughts and prayers. I honour the 215 beautiful children that are home in the Spirit World.”
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times