Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Several municipalities and towns in Nova Scotia will lower their flags to half-mast this week to honour and remember the 215 First Nations children whose bodies were recently found at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
On May 27, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir confirmed the remains were buried in a mass grave at what was once the largest of Canada’s residential schools, the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The discovery has sent shockwaves of sorrow, pain and anger across the country.
On Sunday, Mayor Mike Savage tweeted, the Halifax Regional Municipality will lower its flags to honour the 215 children — some as young as three years old — and “all others who lost their lives to the residential schools system.”
On her Facebook page, Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul called on “everyone” to lower their flags. The community lined some of its sidewalks with flowers to remember the 215 children.
The Nova Scotia government will lower flags on all of its buildings from “sunrise” on Monday to “sunset” on June 8, according to Premier Iain Rankin — “one hour for every child whose life was lost on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School,” he tweeted.
The towns, Bridgewater, Berwick, Port Hawkesbury and Westville will also lower their flags on Monday, as will the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
“215 lives taken. 215 more reasons why we MUST honour and live in the spirit of reconciliation every day,” tweeted CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall on Sunday. “Tomorrow the flags in CBRM will lower for 215 hours to acknowledge and mourn the 215 innocent lives taken.”
Don Darling, mayor of Saint John, N.B. tweeted that flag-lowering is a “simple act of solidarity and support for families and a signal that actual actions are required to eradicate acts of racial discrimination, senseless acts of violence and murder.”
On Sunday, the federal government also confirmed all the flags on its buildings will be flown at half-mast.
Canada’s residential school system was in place from the late 1800s to the mid-1990s, and sought to “eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development” of Indigenous children, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The state and church-run institutions forcibly removed more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children from their families, and placed them in schools where many were physically, sexually and spiritually abused by those charged with their care. Many were also starved as part of scientific experiments on the effects of malnutrition.
Thousands died in the harrowing system of assimilation, leading to intergenerational trauma that has had a deep and lasting impact on survivors, their children, relations and communities.
In 2015, the TRC found Canada guilty of “cultural genocide,” and to this day, governments have failed in many ways to meaningfully repair or compensate for the lasting harm.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1969, with peak enrolment of 500 in the 1950s. The federal government took over administration of the school from 1969 to 1978, using the building as a residence for students attending other Kamloops schools.
The remains of the 215 children were found using ground-penetrating radar— a discovery Chief Casimir called “unthinkable,” although the presence of the remains had been “a knowing” in the Tk’emlúps community.
In a statement on Friday, Kamloops RCMP Supt. Sydney Lecky said as the Tk’emlúps RCMP Detachment “moves forward, we will be working with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved, while at the same time being supportive, respectful, and culturally sensitive to the Indigenous communities that are impacted.”
For those in need of mental health support, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society has a 24-hour Crisis Line, which can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
— With files from James Peters