Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) played a “clear and unavoidable” role in the “tragedy” of residential schools in Canada, the country’s Public Safety Minister says.
Bill Blair made the comments during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security Wednesday afternoon.
The minister also acknowledged “the role of the government in which we all serve.”
Blair’s remarks come almost a week after the remains of more than 200 children were discovered buried on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia.
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.
Blair expressed his “sincere and deepest sympathies,” saying the “the tragic legacy of residential schools and the government of Canada’s role could not be illustrated more profoundly then through the discovery of the children’s graves.”
Blair said over the past two years, including today, he has “spent considerable time” discussing the RCMP’s “work towards reconciliation” with the force’s commissioner Brenda Lucki.
“And the RCMP and the Commissioner have assured me that the RCMP will offer its full support as we seek to learn more about the events in Kamloops and to provide assistance as required in communities right across Canada,” he said.
Blair said as Canada mourns with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and all Indigenous people, “it’s very clear that we must continue to strive to improve upon the services provided to Indigenous people and communities across Canada.”
In an email to Global News Friday, Staff Sergeant Bill Wallace, detachment commander with the Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP, shared that they have “attended the site, participated in meetings, and will continue working closely with the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved in any investigative avenues explored going forward, while at the same time being supportive, respectful, and culturally sensitive to the indigenous communities that are impacted.”
“A file has been opened and any further actions will be taken in consultation with the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nations,” he said.
In 2011, the RCMP published a report titled “the Role of the Canadian Mounted Police during the Indian Residential School system.”
The report found RCMP officers assisted with the removal – often by force — of Indigenous children from their homes and transported them to the residential schools.
Members of the force also acted as “truant officers,” who searched for, apprehended and returned children to the residential schools.
They also fined parents whose children did not go to the schools.
The authors of the report said they interviewed several residential school survivors in their research.
They said many claimed they learned to fear the RCMP, and did not want to contact the police.
In 2004, then-RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli formally apologized to Indigenous Peoples for the RCMP’s involvement in the residential school system.
“To those of you who suffered tragedies at Residential Schools, we are very sorry for your experience,” he said. “Canadians can never forget what happened and they never should.”
“We – I, as Commissioner of the RCMP, am truly sorry for what role we played in the Residential School system and the abuse that took place in that system,” he continued.
Ten years later, in March of 2014, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson offered his apology.
“I am deeply sorry for what has happened to you and the part my organization played in it,” he said.
“Regretfully we can’t change the past. We can, however, move forward together and try to heal,” he said.
“The RCMP has learned from the past and is committed to building strong, healthy and is committed to building strong, healthy and safe Aboriginal communities across this country.”
Calls for action
In the days since the remains of the 215 children were discovered in Kamloops, First Nations leaders and advocates have warned that this is only the beginning, and that there are many missing children left to be found.
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 unmarked burial sites 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 Truth and Reconcilliation Commission (TRC) — a body mandated with researching and telling Canadians about the truth of the residential school system — at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children passed through the residential school system in Canada.
After a years-long investigation, the TRC said it estimates there were at least 3,200 deaths at residential schools across the country.
However, in a report, the TRC 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.”
Speaking during a take-note debate Tuesday evening, 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.”
Opposition parties have also called on the federal Liberal government to move swiftly to enact specific recommendations laid out by the TRC in 2015 with regards to missing children and burial information.
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.