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‘A different place’: How the missing children of a former B.C. residential school changed Canada

Click to play video: 'Marking two years since the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announcement'
Marking two years since the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announcement
Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre interim academic director Tricia Logan talks about why as a country Canada reflects annually on Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc's May 27 announcement.  – May 26, 2023

WARNING: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.

Two years ago, late on May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announced the finding of over 200 potential unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

That announcement would cause a cultural shift and serve as a wakeup call for many Canadians.

“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir said at the time. “Some were as young as three years old.”

A month later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced an estimated 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Since then, countless Indigenous communities across the country have undertaken their own searches and made similar findings of potential unmarked burial sites. Just last month, shíshálh Nation in Sechelt, B.C., announced 40 unmarked graves at the former St. Augustine’s Residential School.

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While a lot of work still needs to be done to confirm the preliminary findings, including exhumation in some cases, they are a stark reminder of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people at residential schools.

But the possible location of children buried in unmarked graves at the former schools was not news to Indigenous communities.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released in 2015, described how many Indigenous people spoke of their children and family members who never came home from residential schools.

The commission created a national memorial register, urged for governments to share their records and help communities locate possible unmarked graves. And among its 94 calls to action, call 76 seeks ongoing identification and documentation of the grounds at former residential school sites.

Communities were announcing findings before 2021. So what made the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announcement different?

“I can’t put my finger on it, what the change specifically was, but it was that collective response. It wasn’t just about the number,” said Tricia Logan, interim academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

“It wasn’t just about the investigation or the ground-penetrating radar. It was about the community response and the survivor response that accompanied it.”

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Logan said the media reaction both locally and globally was an important element that heightened the public’s attention.

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“It drew people’s attention, not just to Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc or residential schools in British Columbia, but residential schools overall and Canada’s relationship with colonialism,” she said.

“Throughout the whole process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the conversation didn’t shift in that way (but did in 2021).”

Click to play video: 'National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation feels ‘sense of urgency’ to collect survivor stories'
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation feels ‘sense of urgency’ to collect survivor stories

In the following weeks and months, support poured in from across Canada and the world.

Flags were kept at half-mast for months, there were calls to cancel Canada Day, memorials with little shoes and teddy bears to represent lost Indigenous children popped up, statues of residential school leaders were removed from public places, and Orange Shirt Day became the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, a federal statutory holiday that is now also a provincial one in many provinces.

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The federal government announced over $100 million in funding for communities to conduct their own research into unmarked graves.

A delegation of Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors traveled to the Vatican, Pope Francis apologized for residential schools abuses, and months later, he came to Canada to apologize again. More recently, the Vatican formally renounced the Doctrine of Discovery.

“There’s also been a broader public response and public consciousness about the burial sites, missing children and what happened, what really happened,” said Logan.

“There was kind of a renewed sense of not just carrying on with the work of reconciliation and addressing calls to action but an important and key reminder about truth and about what truths … maybe weren’t heard loud enough.”

The potential of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools has helped contextualize history for many people.

Click to play video: 'Alberta filmmaker shares residential school survivor’s story'
Alberta filmmaker shares residential school survivor’s story

“It is a different place (now). And I give a lot of that credit to … survivors and family members and community members,” said Logan.

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“Again, it is a very direct response for truth. There was very meaningful, very transformative, responsive reactions to reconciliation, to a different relationship with Canada. But since then, that ongoing pressure and ongoing support for the truth and what really happened, I think, is what’s coming up.”

Each First Nation community across the country who conducts their own searches must do proper consultation, she added.

“Providing health support, providing cultural and wellness support. I think they’re conscious of that very public-facing side of it and the public concern, public support, public lack of support.”

Click to play video: 'The journey to Truth and Reconciliation'
The journey to Truth and Reconciliation

Logan said the ongoing work is a big ask of survivors as they’ve told their stories many times already, so when it comes to learning, non-Indigenous people need to take ownership and dig deeper.

“People often ask what they can learn, what they can talk about, what kind of conversations to have,” said Logan.

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“Increasingly there’s denial and racism and hatred and discrimination that that comes along with all of these stories, and how to take a step farther.

“Not just combating denial and not just combating racism and discrimination, but taking a completely new way of talking about the entire narrative of colonialism and residential schools.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat based emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This service is available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.

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