In the wake of the 215 First Nations children found buried in a mass grave in Kamloops, BC last month, Ottawa is being urged to begin the search for more unmarked remains on former residential school sites.
The news broke on May 27 when the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains of 215 children. It was met with anger, shock, heartbreak and, for those who attended Kamloops Indian Residential School or had a family members who did, validation of the abuse that took place.
Many have paid their respects in different ways since. There have been drum circles to honour the dead, flags flown at half mast, vigils held in communities large and small, and orange shirts worn at schools. Rogers Area, where the Canucks play in Vancouver, has been lit orange “indefinitely.” Meanwhile, the much-maligned statue of Egerton Ryerson, credited as one of the key architects of Canada’s residential school system, was knocked down in Toronto on Sunday.
Still, to truly honour these 215 dead children and acknowledge the abuse and killings that took place at Canadian residential schools between 1874 and 1996, far more action is needed.
The United Nations’ Human Rights Office is now involved and the global body has requested that the Canadian Government open a full probe to investigate the deaths.
“Historic abuses against Indigenous children in government-run educational and health institutions continue to affect the lives of Indigenous communities,” said Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson for the UN’s Human Rights Office.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified the names of over 3,000 children who have died in Canada’s residential schools, but its former chair, Murray Sinclair, told the CBC that the number could be as high as 25,000. The true figure “could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more,” he said.
Last week, Ottawa said it would allocate $27 million to start the process of locating more unmarked graves that may exist on other former residential school grounds in Canada. The money will also be used to help identify those whose bodies have been recovered so far. According to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, the funds will be available immediately through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
During a press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that scanning for more mass unmarked graves is “an important part of discovering the truth” and that he’s “appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities.”
On Friday, Trudeau urged Catholics across Canada to demand action from the Catholic Church in response to the discovery of the mass grave. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969. Church officials have thus far resisted making records related to the school public, which is said to be holding up efforts to identify children who may be buried there.
“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the decision that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years,” said Trudeau.
On Sunday, Pope Francis expressed sorrow for the tragic discovery of the bodies, but stopped short of apologizing for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the residential school system.
“I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news,” Francis told an audience in St. Peter’s Square. “This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past.”