Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is vowing to act after the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were discovered in unmarked graves at a former B.C. residential school site.
The discovery has led to calls for action from Indigenous leaders, politicians, and residential school survivors alike, with many saying that similar searches should be conducted at the sites of other residential schools.
“We are looking for how we can support Indigenous communities in their grief and in their request for answers,” Trudeau said during a Monday press conference.
“I know there will be many, many discussions to be had in the coming days and weeks about how we can best support these communities and get to the truth.”
Trudeau added that he plans to speak to his cabinet ministers about “the next and further things we need to do to support survivors and the community.”
“We promised concrete action, and that’s how we’ll support survivors, families, and Indigenous peoples,” he said.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops announced Thursday that ground-penetrating radar uncovered the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
In existence from 1890 to 1978, and with a wide regional grasp, Kamloops had the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. One report says enrollment peaked in the early 1950s at 500 students.
The community “had knowledge” of the missing children, according to Tk’emlups Chief Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir.
“Some were as young as three years old,” Casimir said.
“We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
But this discovery may simply be scratching the surface, according to Cindy Blackstock, who serves as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society
To date, the TRC has identified more than 4,100 children who died, whether from disease or an accident, while attending one of these schools. But Blackstock said this number could be much higher.
“(TRC Comissioner) Murray Sinclair would say as many as 6,000 might be more realistic, and that might not even be enough, because so many of these deaths were hidden,” said Blackstock.
“They need to fully fund the work that needs to be done to identify the unmarked graves of children across Canada, because there are many, many more,” Blackstock said.
That was exactly the recommendation made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2009 report, which called on the federal government to fund a search for further unmarked graves to the tune of $1.5 million. The government in power at the time, led by former prime minister Stephen Harper, refused the demand.
In the 2019 budget, the federal government infused over $33 million into developing and maintaining a registry of residential school deaths, as well as working to maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries.
But speaking Monday, Trudeau says there’s still “an awful lot” to do to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada.
“We need to do more to support a residential school survivors, and help with the healing process, and go at the intergenerational trauma that exists right across the country in Indigenous communities,” Trudeau said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the government can start by acting swiftly to determine if there are other burial sites out there.
“This was just one school, Kamloops,” he said in an interview with Global News.
“There was over 130 residential schools in Canada, and it happened at every school.”
Bellegarde said the discovery of the mass grave has made the truth undeniable.
“You’ve got to get the sonar technology that’s required to do the proper investigations and research and get this done sooner than later, because families need to know. Families need that healing time,” Bellegarde said.
“Their loved ones have not come home. And some said, ‘oh, they ran away.’ Well, there’s evidence of death. And this is, again, something that survivors have always been saying.”
And as the conversation about searching other residential school sites for potential mass graves continues, Trudeau says he’s bracing for further discoveries.
“I fear, but also hope that we are going to see similar actions from other governments across the country that will lead to discoveries of even further tragedies,” he said.
However, as Trudeau made the comments on Monday, the government continues to fight residential school survivors in court.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the government to compensate First Nations children who had been discriminated against by the government’s child welfare system to the tune of $40,000 each. The ruling applies to the more than 50,000 children who were taken from their homes or denied welfare services.
But the government has been pushing back on the decision in court, with another government bid to convince the CHRT to drop two orders from the ruling scheduled to take place just two weeks from now, according to Blackstock.
One of those orders the government is fighting, Blackstock said, is one that asks them to compensate children who were “unnecessarily separated from their homes” as well as the estates of some of the children “who died because of their discrimination.”
“Their argument is that this is systemic discrimination,” she explained.
“So individual victims, even though they acknowledge that some of these children died and others were unnecessarily separated from their families, are not owed compensation under the Canadian Human Rights.”
The ongoing litigation makes Blackstock wary of Trudeau’s pledge to take action.
“The government itself cannot be relied upon to end its injustices to First Nations children and to act properly for residential school survivors,” she said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed the concern during a Monday press conference.
“The Liberal government can’t on one hand grieve this horrible tragedy, this horrible loss, while they are still taking Indigenous kids to court, while they’re still taking survivors of residential schools to court,” Singh said.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also spoke about the tragic discovery on Monday, calling on the government to implement sections from the TRC’s report that focus on missing children and burial information.
“Today I’m saying let’s act, let’s act together, I’m sure there’s will within all parties,” O’Toole said.
“I’d like the prime minister to move.”
Meanwhile, despite her skepticism, Blackstock isn’t giving up hope.
“My hope is that these children, the 215 found in Kamloops, they inspire Canadians to keep watching the government and insisting that it changes.”
— with files from Global News’ Doyle Potenteau, David Akin
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.