Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Communities across Nova Scotia are joining in the chorus of sadness and anger, after the bodies of 215 First Nations children 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 at unmarked burial sites at what was once the largest of Canada’s residential schools.
Alan Knockwood, who spent four years at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, says news of the discovery brings back feelings of anger.
He says he himself came near death during his time at the school, and considers himself lucky to have survived.
But his time there had a lasting effect.
“I went there I saw other people and I tried to communicate in Mi’kmaq and I would get strapped for it, to the point where I can no longer speak my language,” he said.
The Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO) and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs issued a news release on Monday to express their collective condolences.
They also offered a grim reality.
“With so many schools across the country, we are very aware that this is not an isolated incident.”
Staff from the KMKNO are part of the Indian Residential School sub-committee, and have been working for several years on investigations — like the one in Kamloops — at the site of the former Shubenacadie Residential School.
“To date no graves or human remains have been found,” the group notes.
“We are still looking.”
The news release notes that the sub-committee is looking at other locations to search with ground-penetrating radar, and discussing methods to search Snides Lake.
“We all want to ensure that the site is fully investigated as this work is extremely important to our people,” the group said.
Residential school survivor Dorene Bernard has dedicated much of her life to making sure the history of the institutions is never forgotten.
“This is something that we’re going to have to keep alive in the hearts and minds of all Canadians if true reconciliation is to take place,” she said.
She says there is a strong belief among survivors that there are indeed unmarked graves at the Shubenacadie site.
“We’re hoping we’ll find them and consecrate those graves. Those children that are there, that they’ll be marked as a sacred site,” she said.
“Sacred consecrated land so that they will be remembered.”
Tributes to the children
Monday, flags at provincial buildings and many communities are at half-mast in memory of the children and all victims of Canada’s residential school system.
Premier Iain Rankin began the day’s COVID-19 briefing by addressing the discovery in Kamloops — calling it a “horrific reminder of the damaging legacy of residential schools, including in our province.”
“Our flags have been put to half mast across the province at all provincial buildings, including the legislature for 215 hours,” he said.
“That in itself is definitely not enough. The ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma endures, and we need to help heal these wounds in the spirit of reconciliation.”
Meanwhile, children’s shoes have become a symbol of the young lives lost.
Outside the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre on Gottingen Street in Halifax, two rows of toddlers’ boots stood in the rain.
Keeley Stubbs, who works at the daycare and is an intergenerational survivor of the residential school system, says the pain inflicted isn’t just in the past.
“Indigenous children and Indigenous women and two-spirit people are still going missing to this day. It’s an ongoing problem. And it didn’t stop when those schools shut down,” she said.
Elsewhere in the province, small shoes stood pair by pair on the steps of St. Mary’s Basilica in Halifax and a church in Eskasoni on Cape Breton.
A small ceremony was also held at Eskasoni First Nation on Monday.
And residents of Pictou Landing First Nation lined a stretch of road with 215 potted plants as a tribute to the children.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
– With files from Alicia Draus and Reynold Gregor