Like millions of others across Canada, Calgarians have been doing what they can to honour the 215 children whose remains were found buried last week in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The unthinkable discovery was revealed by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops on Thursday, who said the bodies had been found with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
Since then, Canadians have begun placing teddy bears on their front porches and doorsteps to honour the lives lost – some then taking to social media to share the images using the hashtag #BearsFor215.
“The children that were lost at that residential school, some of them were as young as three years old, so the teddy bear represents the children,” Michaela Lewis, a Sixties Scoop survivor, said.
Lewis said she posted in a Woodbine community group asking her neighbours to join in the initiative and said she was blown away by the outpouring of support.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. There’s been people putting out teddy bears and commenting on the post – it’s been really great.
“There’s still lots of people that don’t understand what’s happened,” she said. “If we can share that with other people and get the message out there that there’s lots of support here — not just in this community but across the country.
“This is no longer a First Nations issue.
“This is not the history that I wanted or the legacy that I wanted, but I would be really proud to be part of the generation that holds the Catholic Church and the government accountable for these things that happened.”
Lewis said she hopes all of the victims of Canada’s residential schools can be found and given a proper burial.
“Let’s learn from this and let’s take care of all of our children in this country from here on out.”
Tsuut’ina Chief Roy Whitney noted the recent discovery will cause renewed pain for the survivors of residential schools and their families.
“It punctuates the injustice of this system and the callousness of treatment of the children in custodial care,” Whitney said. “However, we insist that the investigation of this residential school must be thorough, intensive and driven by a desire to seek full accountability.
“Not only do our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in affected British Columbia Nations, but we pledge any other assistance that may be required in the days ahead,” he added.
“We sincerely hope that this event will help to reinforce in the national consciousness that residential schools were, very simply, inhumane.”
The Calgary Tower went dark for one hour on Sunday evening in support of the victims of residential schools.
Flags at Calgary City Hall, all Calgary Board of Education (CBE) buildings and all Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) buildings will be lowered in tribute.
In a statement on its website, the CBE said it is encouraging everyone to take a moment to “reflect on the lives of these children and their families.”
“We continue to support the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action as part of the CBE’s system Indigenous Education Holistic Lifelong Learning Framework.”
Staff and students at both the public and Catholic school districts are encouraged to wear an orange shirt this week to show their solidarity and support of residential school survivors.
“At this time, we feel deep sadness and anger, but we must also act. It is long past time for action,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi tweeted. “The flags on all City of Calgary buildings are being lowered as a symbol of mourning, but that’s not enough.
“All governments must commit to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not just with words but real action. That means holding true to our commitment to teach this history in every grade so all Canadian children know and commit to a better future.
“It means no more dithering,” he continued. “It means clean drinking water and equitable services on every First Nation, starting today. It means access to economic prosperity for all Indigenous peoples.
“We must all commit to being uncomfortable and calling out racism wherever we see it, in all its forms, particularly against Indigenous peoples.
“The time for excuses, rationalization and minimizing the harm is long past.”
On Monday, Nenshi asked members of Calgary city council to join him in 215 seconds of silence in honour of the children whose bodies were found in Kamloops.
“It’s going to feel uncomfortably long,” Nenshi said. “And I want you to sit in that discomfort and I want you to use that discomfort to think about your own personal accountability and your own personal commitment to action.”
Survivors of the residential school system can get support through Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program 24/7 crisis line by calling 1-866-925-4419.