Members of Toronto's Indigenous communities and residents held a candlelight vigil at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday evening to honour of the 215 children whose remains were discovered on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Some placed pairs of children's shoes in the centre of the square to represent the children's lives that were lost, while others lit candles, sang, danced and beat drums.
Brianna Olson Pitawanakwat, whose grandmother and mother both attended residential schools, says the tragedy is a window into the horrors that Indigenous people in Canada endured in the residential school system.
"I think it's a big wake up call for folks. Our communities know these stories, we know the history, we know about missing children, we know that children never came home," Olson Pitawanakwat said. "A huge history history [is] still being unearthed."
The discovery of the remains was made public Thursday at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation territory. The First Nation said the remains were confirmed with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
Olson Pitawanakwat says the purpose of the vigil was to gather and heal with members of her community. "We have a connection, these are our relatives."
'It's just heartbreaking'
Meanwhile, a makeshift memorial has been set up outside of Queen's Park, with pairs of shoes, flowers and posters lined up on display.
Kelly Jackson, an Ojibway woman, says she came to honour the victims and their families. "It's just heartbreaking that all these kids were taken away from their families," she said, fighting back tears.
"It's a lot of grief, I'm just happy that I have my kids."
Meanwhile, flags at Toronto's city hall were lowered at half-mast on Sunday to commemorate the tragedy, following the lead at all federal buildings in Canada, including the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement on Twitter on Sunday that the flags will remain lowered for nine days, or 215 hours, to represent each child whose life was lost.
Other Ontario cities, namely Mississauga and Brampton, also lowered their flags. The Toronto Raptors tweeted it would be doing the same outside their OVO Athletic Centre.
The move came one day after the Chief of Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations (MCFN) penned an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to lower the flags of Canada and declare a national day of mourning for First Nations children.
On Sunday night, the Toronto sign was dimmed in further recognition of the loss of life and the need for truth and reconciliation.
Tory said he has talked to Chief Stacey Laforme of the MCFN and has extended his condolences to Laforme and, through him, to all First Nations people in Canada.
Six Nations says discovery is 'unspeakable loss'
In a statement on Friday, the Six Nations of Grand River Elected Council expressed its condolences to the families of the children and to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community for this "unspeakable loss."
"Our heavy hearts are with all the families impacted, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community, and all survivors who may be triggered as they try to comprehend this devastation," Elected Chief Mark B. Hill said in the statement.
"We hope that this confirmation allows for a path to healing and closure for the families and home communities of the children. We are sending our thoughts and good medicine to Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc."
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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.
The federal government apologized in Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many students recall being beaten for speaking Indigenous languages; they also lost touch with their parents and customs.
A report more than five years ago by the TRC said at least 3,200 children had died amid abuse and neglect, and it said it had reports of at least 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone between 1915 and 1963.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who may be triggered by the latest reports. 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. Individuals can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.