Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says more supports for survivors of residential schools are coming following the heartbreaking report of the discovery of children’s remains in Kamloops, B.C.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children.
What those federal supports will look like is still unclear. Trudeau said he’ll meet with some of his cabinet later today to discuss next steps to aid survivors and the community.
“People are hurting and we must be there for the survivors,” he said this morning ahead of an announcement about Black entrepreneurs.
“Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality — a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it.”
Emergency debate rejected by speaker
The Liberal government is under mounting pressure to announce concrete steps following last week’s news.
“Our hearts are there with the families and communities impacted by this tragic news,” Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told a Senate committee hearing today. “Once you know the truth you can’t un-know the truth.”
“Our government will continue to engage with the communities on the development of culturally appropriate approaches to identifying these children, locating burial sites and commemorating and memorializing those who died or went missing attending these schools.”
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) is calling on both the federal government and the Roman Catholic Church to take action.
“Well-wishes and prayers only go so far,” Angela White, executive director for the IRSSS, said Friday.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir also has said the federal government should take immediate steps.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement Monday calling the discovery of the remains “shocking.”
“It rekindles trauma in numerous communities across this land. Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” said Richard Gagnon, the group’s president.
“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh sought an emergency debate in the House of Commons and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said her party would support it. Speaker Anthony Rota denied the request.
Liberal MP Mark Geretsen’s motion to hold a take-note debate on Tuesday, after the day’s parliamentary business has been finished, did pass unanimously in the House.
Singh — who appeared visibly shaken during his news conference today and at one point choked back tears — is also calling on the federal government to search the grounds of other former residential schools.
“It is not good enough for the federal Liberal government to just make symbolic gestures,” Singh told reporters during a news conference in Ottawa this morning.
“This isn’t the last site; there are many others to be found. Indigenous communities deserve to have the justice that every site like this is uncovered.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the discovery of the graves “is a heartbreaking reminder of the pain Indigenous children, their families and communities were subjected to through residential school.”
O’Toole said he would write to Trudeau to ask him to “take immediate action to address” the “unspeakable discovery and support the Indigenous community and our country in mourning.”
The Conservative leader said he wants the federal government to accelerate its efforts to address the parts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that deal with missing children and burial information.
“The Conservative opposition will support swift and immediate efforts to give families and communities closure and a time for healing,” O’Toole said.
Calls for more site searches
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which released 94 calls to action six years ago following a lengthy investigation into residential schools, made six recommendations regarding missing children and burial grounds.
It called on the federal government to work with churches, Indigenous communities and former residential school students “to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.”
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said now that evidence that children died in residential schools in large numbers, the federal government has to follow up at other residential school sites and work towards “the righting of a huge wrong.”
“The survivors of these schools have been saying this for years and years but nobody would believe them that there were these burial grounds, that children went missing, that children were dying and were just gotten rid of,” Bellegarde told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics. “Nobody would believe the survivor stories.”
Since the grim discovery in Kamloops, advocates have been pushing Ottawa to fund more site searches.
When asked if he would support those calls, Trudeau pointed to previous funding announcements but said there is more to do.
The government’s 2019 budget announced $33.8 million to develop and maintain the national residential school student death register and set up an online registry of residential school cemeteries.
“I think that is an important part of discovering the truth,” said Trudeau. “I think there will be more that we will do … So yes, we will be there to work with communities on the things they need and the things we all need to know.”
Rempel Garner said calls for action need support from all parties.
“More action needs to be taken. This is not a time to talk. We have to be taking cues from Indigenous leaders across the country,” she said.
“This discovery is a stain on our country.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools between the 1870s and 1996.
The TRC heard moving and tragic accounts of what happened to Indigenous children in residential schools before releasing its monumental 2015 report. Many of the children were physically and sexually abused at the schools.
At least 4,100 children died while attending these schools. Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, has said he believes the death count could be much higher due to the schools’ poor burial records.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to 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.