Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Members of Parliament are taking part in an emergency take-note debate in the House of Commons, days after the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children were discovered buried beneath a former residential school in British Columbia.
Trudeau told the House of Commons that the children found in Kamloops and others who have “yet to be found in other places across the country, would have been grandparents or great-grandparents.”
“They would have been Elders, Knowledge Keepers and community leaders,” he continued. “They are not, and that is the fault of Canada.”
Trudeau said the children should have never been separated from their families and taken to the residential schools, where they suffered “terrible loneliness” and suffered “unthinkable abuse.”
On Thursday, the chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed it had found the remains of the 215 children, buried on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The remains were found using ground-penetrating radar.
Chief Rosanne Casimir called the discovery “unthinkable,” but said the presence of the remains was “a knowing” in the Tk’emlúps community.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told the House of Commons that “we are all profoundly shaken by this horrifying discovery.”
“Our thoughts are with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation as they mourn and come together to heal and support one another,” she said.
Bennett said the federal government will “be there to support the Tk’emlúps and all communities across Canada affected by missing children and the legacy of residential schools and the intergenerational trauma inflicted.”
She said the government is also committed to supporting survivors, their families and communities across the country to locate and “memorialize through ceremony, the children who died or went missing while attending residential schools.”
Liberal MP Pam Damoff said Canada was “founded on racism, and founded on colonialism.”
Damoff, who serves as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services, said as a result, “Indigenous peoples not only have had to deal with this 150 years ago, but continue to deal with it today.”
“We see systemic racism in policing, we see systemic racism in our healthcare system in Canada,” she said, adding that it is “unacceptable.”
Damoff said all Canadians have to “take responsibility for that and all of us have to take action to make sure that we end the racism and colonialism that continues to exist today.”
Opposition calls for action
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), is a body mandated to tell Canadians about the truth of the residential school system.
The TRC spent several years – from 2008 to 2015 — collecting historical data and compiling stories from survivors to gain a better understanding of what happened at residential schools across the country.
In 2015 the TRC issued a report outlining 94 “calls to action,” it said would help to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”
Included in the report were six recommendations specifically in regards to missing children and burial information.
Speaking during the debate, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said the residential school system is a “dark and painful part” of Canada’s history.
“Tragically, new chapters are still being added to this sad history,” he said.
O’Toole called on the Trudeau Liberals to follow through on the set of recommendations from the TRC report which focus on missing children and burial information.
O’Toole said his party would work with the federal government to ensure the recommendations from the commission are completed.
NDP MP Leah Gazan called for all residential school sites to be blocked off “immediately” as active crime scenes so that “Indigenous nations, survivors and families can decide how they want to proceed in their search for their loved ones.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said the uncovering of the site in Kamloops was not a surprise, but said it “opened up wounds” and is something that “requires healing,” adding that the federal government has a large role to play in supporting that healing.
Conservative MP Todd Doherty called on MPs to put aside partisanship to work together towards reconciliation.
“We have to be united as one as we walk together,” he said. “We have to stand with them shoulder to shoulder and grieve with them.”
‘It happened at every school’
In an interview with Global News on Monday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the federal government must act swiftly to determine if there are other burial sites out there.
“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.
According to the TRC, at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children passed through the residential school system in Canada.
The TRC identified 3,200 deaths as part of its investigation.
However, in its report, the Commission said due to “limitations in the records, it is probable that there are many student deaths that have not been recorded in the register because the record of the death has not yet been located.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access a 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419
-With a files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore and Leslie Young