Flags across British Columbia are being lowered to half-mast as the province processes news of the remains of 215 children discovered at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery Thursday after ground-penetrating radar confirmed what members had long said about the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was the largest institution of its kind in Canada.
“I have been in touch with leadership from the Musqueam whose members had loved ones taken and sent to the Kamloops Residential School. I will also be speaking with leadership from Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh this week,” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a statement announcing flags had been lowered at civic facilities.
“Our entire city, province, and country should mourn this news, as we should continue to mourn the legacy of violence and genocide against Indigenous people.”
Flags at the B.C. legislature and federal buildings were also lowered Sunday.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said flags at civic facilities would be lowered on Monday for 215 hours, representing one hour for each child.
“The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past,” Helps said.
“These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing.”
The cities of Nanaimo and Delta also announced plans to lower flags.
Calls for accountability
Amid the symbolism of flags being lowered, calls for accountability in the wake of the discovery continue to grow.
Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called for an unprecedented and thorough investigation along the lines of the one conducted into convicted serial killer Robert Pickton.
“This cannot be swept under the carpet,” said Phillip. “We don’t need any more political theatre in terms of apologies by the Prime Minister. We need them to engage this with all of the resources available and necessary to do a proper job.”
The Syilx Okanagan Nation, which represents eight First Nations in the Okanagan, also issued a statement calling on the province and federal government to “directly address these atrocities.”
“The level of inhumane and criminal treatment of First Nations children at the hands of colonial governments and organized religion is deeply disturbing,” wrote Chief Clarence Louie.
On Sunday, Vancouver’s mayor added his voice to the call for a deeper investigation.
“I am also calling for all residential school sites in Canada to be expertly examined under the guidance of local First Nations and Knowledge Keepers so that we can begin to identify the thousands of children we know are unaccounted for,” Stewart said.
Former B.C. representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, now director of UBC’s Indian Residential School Centre for History and Dialogue, described the mass grave as a “crime scene,” and called for the appointment of a special rapporteur into mass graves and unreported deaths associated with the schools.
Lafond said Canada lacks any kind of legal or human rights framework to deal with the discovery, and others that may come in the months or years to come, and said the country needs to look to how the U.N. has handled cases in places like Kosovo and Rwanda.
“There’s one common thing, which is an undocumented, unmarked grave where the records are not clear yet,” she said.
“We know this is proximate to a school where there was massive abuse of children, physical abuse, sexual abuse, children didn’t have enough food to eat … but most importantly, they were treated in a subhuman way because the goal of the state, Canada, through the churches … was to take the Indian out of the child, to stop the First Nations children from speaking their language, practising their culture and continuing their identity.
“In that kind of situation, the situations of children going missing is not unheard of globally, and it’s something that Canada is going to have to turn its mind to now.”
Back in Kamloops, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc remain in the early stages of determining how to address the site, which has yet to be exhumed.
The Kamloops RCMP said it is working with community leaders on next steps, a process that could also include the BC Coroners Service, academic experts and the Royal B.C. Museum.