Local leaders react to discovery of remains of 215 children buried at former B.C. residential school
Tim Brody - Editor
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Area leaders are voicing their support of the families and communities directly impacted by the recent finding of 215 children’s remains on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Action has also been taken locally in Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul First Nation to honour and pay tribute to these children.
On May 29, in a social media post, The Municipality of Sioux Lookout shared that Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance and Sioux Lookout resident, Lac Seul Band Member, Elder and Indian Residential School (IRS) Survivor Garnet Angeconeb placed a wreath that evening at the corner of Wellington Street and Government Row, on behalf of the Municipal Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
“The Sioux Lookout Municipal Committee on Truth and Reconciliation invites the community and region to join in remembering all former students - survivors – of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system.
“At this time, we especially acknowledge the families and communities directly impacted by the recent finding of 215 children’s remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site in British Columbia.
“Through this painful experience, may we acknowledge the effects of historic trauma, work to understand one another, and, together, let us foster peace and understanding through reconciliation.
“On behalf of the Municipality of Sioux Lookout and the Sioux Lookout Municipal Committee on Truth and Reconciliation Committee, we place this wreath to pay tribute to and honour all those who are impacted by the residential school legacy,” the post stated.
Municipal flags were lowered to half mast as another way to pay tribute.
Lac Seul First Nation also lowered flags on the reserve to half mast to honour and acknowledge the loss of the children.
On May 31 a ceremony took place at the Frenchman’s Head baseball diamond, where 215 orange t-shirts adorned the fence at the baseball diamond to pay tribute to the lost children.
Community members were encouraged to wear orange, honouring Indigenous children sent away to Canada’s residential schools.
The news of the children’s remains being located came on May 27, in the form of a news release from the Office of the Chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia.
“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. 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.
“Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the home community of the Kamloops Indian Residential School which was the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. As such, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Leadership acknowledges their responsibility to caretake for these lost children,” the news release states.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Kukpi7 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.”
Lawrance said the wreath laying came about following an email by Angeconeb suggesting that the Municipal Truth and Reconciliation Committee take leadership on responding to the Kamloops discovery.
“Garnet and I did not want to create a gathering of too many people given COVID. The wreath was laid in the grassy area between Wellington Street and the caboose, near the water treatment plant.
“Our intention was to honour the over 200 children whose remains were discovered on the site of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops. We also felt we needed to recognize that this discovery may have significant impact on many people who have been touched by Canada’s Indian Residential School system, including those living in the Sioux Lookout area. As we know there was such a school here at Pelican Falls and others in the region.
“By the laying of the wreath we hope that it can provide a venue for recognition, remembrance, and perhaps in some small way ease the burden that this horrific discovery may trigger,” Lawrance said.
Angeconeb, a survivor of the Pelican Falls Indian Residential School and a former member of the Sioux Lookout Municipal Committee on Truth and Reconciliation, said he reached out to the mayor and other members of the committee, asking them to act to acknowledge the news coming out of Kamloops.
“I think it was important for the community here to share in the grief of what’s happened out in Kamloops B.C. because what’s happened out there affects not just the survivors of the residential schools, it also impacts on us as a country, us as acknowledging our shared history as Canada, and so a gesture of setting up a memorial paying tribute to the 215 children’s remains, that we send a message that our thoughts and prayers are with those directly affected,” he said.
“I know that this news has hit a lot of people right across the country, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It was important for the community here to also acknowledge what’s happening, and so, I thought it was appropriate that the community as well as the region reach out by setting up a memorial to acknowledge this dark chapter of our country’s history.”
Angeconeb said, “When we talk about what happened within Canada’s residential school system, this country has responded in a way that has brought out a lot of disclosure of what happened in residential schools to those who attended - the horrible stories of being separated from families, being separated from your culture and from your community and the consequences of that. That discussion has come out in the open. We’ve had a truth telling commission, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where a lot of these stories came to the surface of the atrocities of the residential school system and many of those, if not all those stories, are true.
“In the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there were stories that were told to them about missing children, about those who died within the system and never made it home and in many cases, their deaths were never recorded, never documented, and in many cases never told to their families and communities. There’s never been a way to really put a number on how many of these students are missing right across the country – it’s in the thousands. And now here we have one school out of 130 residential schools across the country, one out of 130 residential schools with 215 remains being discovered. That is gut-wrenching. That is hard to take,” he emotionally shared.
“This country must recognize the horrible truths about the residential school system and how it has impacted and how it continues to impact to this very day. We must listen and we must act in a way that brings about healing. There are many people hurting right across the country. I had some very good friends call me, fellow survivors and others that are sharing the pain. It’s a horrible situation, but we must rise to the challenge that we can do better,” he said.
“When you see a tragic story like this and people responding across the country with monuments, memorials, vigils, even Parliament Hill is lowering its flag to half mast, we know as a nation we have to respond and we have to do things differently for good change. We have to change for the better and I’m not going to define what that is. Each one of us has to do some soul searching to say, ‘what is it I can do to make this a better country, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past’. It’s horrible. And it took children to tell us that. And so we must rise to the challenge,” he shared.
“I think about the mothers and how that must have felt when their children were taken away by a system, by a legal system of the government and today we wake up and we realize that price that mothers had to pay. A horrible tragedy. The least that we could do was come together in an honourable way to pay special tribute to the situation that is happening right now, that is unfolding in Kamloops and that we have to, as a country, respond and there will be lot of reaction in the days and weeks to come and there will be lots of dialogue. I’m very encouraged that, through dialogue, someday down the road we will find true reconciliation. But right now, we must wake up to the call to respond,” Angeconeb concluded.
Kenora MP Eric Melillo shared on social media, “The discovery of a mass grave in BC is disturbing and tragic - a reminder of families destroyed and the ongoing trauma of Residential Schools.
“We grieve with the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation and Indigenous communities across Canada.”
Sioux Lookout resident and Sacred Heart School teacher Manuela Michelizzi challenged local residents to respond to the tragedy in a social media post on Sunday on the Sioux Lookout & Area Events & Services Facebook Page.
“Just like we set our hockey sticks (out) for Humboldt, I challenge all of Sioux Lookout to hang an orange shirt outside. We do this in remembrance for all residential school survivors and especially for the 215 little ones and the countless others that never made it home. #everychildmatters.”
Several local, provincial and national leaders issued statements responding to the tragedy:
MPP Sol Mamakwa (Kiiwetinoong) - NDP critic for Indigenous and Treaty Relations
“Indigenous Peoples across Canada are hurting. We are in pain, remembering all those we have lost and the destruction of what residential schools has left behind. The discovery of those precious 215 lost children – our children – has underscored the daunting amount of work to be done to ensure justice, dignity and equity for our people.
“All Indigenous Peoples living today in Canada are survivors of Canada’s tools of genocide. We are survivors of Indian residential schools, survivors of the Indian Act, survivors of the Sixties Scoop and survivors of ongoing systemic racism which attempts to erase us. But we are still here.
“The death of our children is a crime against humanity, but Canada has never treated it as such. This country must own up to its past, as must all of its governments and institutions.
I am calling on Ontario and the Canadian government to work with all First Nations at the sites of the schools and look for our lost children. It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools – an open secret that Canadians can no longer look away from. In keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Projects, every school site must be searched for the graves of our ancestors.
“Canada must also demand apologies from those who helped commit these heinous crimes. Pope Francis, the Catholic Church and all other churches involved must own up to their part in this genocide, apologize and offer financial restitution to survivors and the families of those lost.
“Finally, we must remember that Canada’s governments at every level have roles to play, responsibilities and treaty obligations. I am calling on the government of Ontario to immediately lower the flags at all provincial buildings to half-mast to honour the 215 children lost, and will call for a moment of silence tomorrow (May 31) at Queens Park. I will also be calling on the government of Ontario to institute an annual Day of Mourning and Remembrance for those we lost to residential schools, and to survivors. Let this be the first step towards an honest reckoning with the past by Ontario, by Canada, and all the people who call this land home.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation – Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox, on behalf of the Executive Council
“We are very saddened to learn that the final resting place of so many innocent children have been discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these youth and the entire Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community. Even after all these years there are new tragedies of the Residential School system coming to light. We commend the Knowledge Keepers and the families for their perseverance to uncover the truth behind the terrible loss of these young children. This discovery shows how the legacy of the Residential School system continues to impact the lives of Residential School survivors and the families of those who never returned home.”
NAN further shared that, “Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1969. Approximately 500 children from British Columbia and other parts of the country attended. Only 50 deaths were reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
as of 2008.
“The TRC’s Final Report concluded that a soldier had a better chance of surviving the Second World War, than a First Nations student had of surviving the Residential School system.”
Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services
“The mistreatment of Indigenous children is a tragic and shameful part of Canada’s history. Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that removed Indigenous children from their communities.
“Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families. The families were often provided with little to no information on the circumstances of their loved one’s death nor the location of their burial. Children in residential schools were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. The loss of children who attended residential schools is unthinkable and Canada remains resolved to supporting families, Survivors and communities and to memorializing those lost innocent souls.
“Yesterday’s news of the discovery of 215 bodies found in the area around the Kamloops Indian Residential School is once again a reminder of the harms families and Survivors have suffered and continue to suffer. We are profoundly saddened by this discovery and our thoughts are with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, as well as with all Indigenous communities across Canada. We are working with the community and our partners, such as the BC First Nations Health Authority, to provide resources and the support needed as determined by the community.
“For immediate assistance to those who may need it, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to find the truth in our country’s dark and painful history of residential schools. Their 94 Calls to Action are an appeal to mobilize all levels of government, organizations and individuals to make concrete changes in society. They list specific actions to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.
“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was established and is now responsible for the Student Death Registries. Since Budget 2019, we have been engaging with Indigenous communities impacted by residential schools on how best to proceed with implementing Calls to Action 72 to 76. We have listened and are ensuring that the approaches taken moving forward are Indigenous-led, community-based, Survivor-centric and culturally sensitive.
“The TRC revealed the heartbreaking details of the role that residential schools played in the history of Canada and the tragic legacy that continues today. It is said that once you know the truth, you cannot un-know it. Yesterday’s discovery reflects a dark and painful chapter in our country’s history. We remain committed to supporting Survivors, their families and communities through their healing journeys.”
Greg Rickford, Minister of Indigenous Affairs
“Our government, alongside Ontario Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald, was shocked and saddened by the discovery of remains of 215 children on the former site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. To pay respect to these children, their families, and survivors of Canada’s residential school system, Premier Doug Ford has ordered provincial flags to be flown at half-mast for 215 hours, in accordance with a request made today (May 31) by Sol Mamakwa, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Kiiwetinoong.
The residential school era is a dark chapter in Canada’s history, with Indigenous families and communities continuing to experience multi-generational trauma as a result of this terrible system. This discovery hits close to home for many Indigenous people across the country and here in Ontario who lost family and community members to the residential school system.
We continue to strengthen relationships with Indigenous partners to support healing and make reconciliation real by advancing initiatives that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of Indigenous people and communities.”