WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
When Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum heard that the remains of 215 children were found outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., he says he was heartbroken and reminded of his own childhood.
Last Thursday, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children — some as young as three years old.
For many, like Bosum, it was a discovery that reopened already painful wounds and that reignited calls for the government to take action and give Indigenous families long-awaited answers.
Bosum himself was first sent to a residential school in Brantford, Ont., as a child, before spending nine years at another residential school in LaTuque, Que.
"The first thing when you got to these residential schools is that you were told not to speak your language, you were told not to communicate with any of your siblings or friends," Bosum recalled.
"You were stripped of your clothing, your belongings, any contact with your parents, and that is very hard for a child to go through."
At noon on Monday, Bosum and other members of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee observed an hour of silence in honour of the children who lost their lives in residential schools.
Similar actions took place in communities across Quebec. Groups held vigils in Montreal and Quebec City Monday night, and several Indigenous communities in various parts of the province observed minutes of silence, placed their flags at half mast or asked people to wear orange shirts.
But while these ceremonies are an important part of honouring those were lost, Bosum says a lot more needs to be done to help people in their healing.
"I imagine there are ways to do the investigations as it was done in B.C.," said Bosum.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools between the 1870s and 1996.
Many of the children were physically and sexually abused at the schools, and at least 4,100 of them died while attending.
Eleven of the schools were in the province of Quebec.
More than residential schools
Mary Hannaburg, vice-president of Quebec Native Women, would like to see the United Nations open up an investigation into the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous children not only in residential schools, but in the health-care network and child services.
"We want the truth. We don't want any more romanticism, we don't want any more apologies," said Hannaburg. "We want action."
Hannaburg hopes to see both the federal and provincial governments do more to uncover whether remains are buried outside other residential schools, and to hold the institutions that put them there to account.
She also hopes that when remains are found, the government will do a full forensic analysis to find out exactly what the children had to live through.
"These little souls are not at rest, they're not at peace," said Hannaburg. "And they were at the hands of the priests, the educators, the teachers — they were under the supervision of the schools."
"These tragic events occur and they're forgotten about. It's just another sad story in the media," added Gesgapegiag First Nation Chief John Martin.
Martin says his community is still waiting for answers from the province, in the case of a child who disappeared after he was placed in the youth protection system 25 years ago.
"To this day, the parents and family still wonder and there's no closure, so I can imagine for all those children that never came home … families are still missing the ones that never came back."
Support will be offered, minister says
Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière says his government will support the families as they ask Ottawa for answers.
"If you ask me what's going to be the next step, it will be really to support them in their requests with the federal government," said Lafrenière. "I will make sure that my colleagues from the Canadian government will hear us loud and clear that those families need help now, they need something to happen."
For his part, Lafrenière said he will be focusing on helping families through Bill 76 — a provincial bill currently undergoing review that would allow families to access the records of children who died or went missing in government-run institutions.
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of 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.