Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
Last Thursday, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in BC announced the bodies of 215 children had been found buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site.
The residential school system in Canada forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families for more than a century and attempted to take away their culture, their language, and their Indigeneity.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 found that thousands of children died while in the system’s supposed care, though the true number of those lost “is not likely ever to be known in full,” the commission found, since full and accurate documentation was not maintained.
News of the Kamloops discovery quickly spread across the country and has been met with grief, horror, and outrage.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir described the discovery as “unbelievable” to Kamloops This Week. Nearly 300 people gathered outside the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on Sunday to mourn the children, as reported by Windspeaker, and CBC Montréal described how residents on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake placed 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of the local Catholic church.
For those in the NWT – where trauma caused by residential schools reverberates strongly today – the news was just as upsetting.
Yellowknife resident Angela Canning, who is Indigenous, told Cabin Radio she was “in shock” when she heard of the discovery.
“I was just devastated, horrified that this actually happened in Canada,” she said. “It was just all over social media. There was no getting away from it.
“I literally had an emotional breakdown. I just couldn’t stop crying, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Kristine McLeod, Deputy Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in Inuvik, said the discovery was “heartbreaking.” Many of McLeod’s family members, including her father and grandparents, are former residential school students.
However, she added that the reality of the violence and atrocities committed against their children is “not a secret” for many Indigenous communities.
“Pretty-much everyone in the North has been affected by this, as well as across Canada,” McLeod said. “Whether or not you have a family member or an ancestor who you’ve never met who attended residential school, it hits very close to home. And as a mother of two children, it makes it even more difficult to find out about this.
“But it’s not something that we’re just finding out about. It’s something that we’ve all known for a very long time, but this discovery has made national news and I think it’s time that the government examine all former residential school sites.”
Maggie Mercredi, who worked with former students applying for federal compensation for many years, said she wasn’t surprised to hear of the discovery. In her work, she had heard similar stories from former students about classmates being buried in the bush while attending residential schools.
“I imagine for all of the former students and all of their families today, it’s another shock to the system,” she said. “Myself, as an intergenerational person, this affects me … it opens up that pain for me of what my great-grandmother went through and what my grandmother went through.
“It’s kind-of a constant wave after wave of grief that is in our communities. Those waves haven’t stopped … waves of poverty, of racism, of discrimination, of oppression, of lateral violence and bullying, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, all of this is part of those waves.”
Honouring those who were lost
Events in the NWT this week will honour the lives of the children found.
As of Monday, the City of Yellowknife is flying all flags outside public facilities at half-mast for 215 hours to honour the number of children found. The flags will rise again at 8am on June 9. The Kátł’odeeche First Nation said on Facebook it has also lowered its flags for the next 215 hours, as had several other communities in the territory.
Schools such as Yellowknife’s Mildred Hall and NJ Macpherson encouraged staff and students to wear orange on Tuesday.
The Dene Nation is organizing a march in the city to take place on Friday, as well as a fire-feeding ceremony to take place at the former Akaitcho Hall site near Sir John Franklin High School.
In the Legislative Assembly on Monday, MLA for Great Slave Katrina Nokleby raised the possibility of forming a special committee to determine locations of grave sites in the NWT, and whether the territorial government would acquire the radar equipment to do so.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said she would not “take the horse and run,” but would raise the issue at a table including Indigenous leadership, as well as with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In several NWT communities, residents left shoes at various sites – each aiming to gather 215 pairs to mark the number of children lost at Kamloops.
Canning started a memorial of shoes at the former Akaitcho Hall site in Yellowknife.
“It’s just part of my grieving process,” she said. “I felt like other people needed this as well, to just to be able to physically do something in memory of these poor children.”
Yellowknife resident Michelle Fortin brought her children to place shoes at the site on Sunday. She told Cabin Radio she remembers when Akaitcho Hall was operational. The school didn’t close until 1994.
“I actually went to school at Sir John when Akaitcho was still open,” Fortin said. “I do have friends that did reside there during school.”
Fortin has guardianship of a young boy who has family who attended residential schools. Her father-in-law went to residential school, and her partner has experienced the resulting intergenerational trauma.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking as a mother to know that children were ripped from families’ arms and forced into having their culture taken away from them and treated as lesser people,” she said. “It’s just maddening, it’s sad, it’s horrible.
“There needs to be so much education going on as to what happened, and there need to be more treatment facilities so these people that attended are able to work through their trauma.”
Supporting the healing journey of former students is top of mind for Mercredi.
“What is happening in our country today is showing not just how strong Indigenous people are, who have gone through what we’ve gone through, but also how much support we have,” she said.
“Today, when we attend these things, we’re showing that. It builds on the love and the strength of the country for what happened to us.”
For McLeod, it’s also about ensuring such atrocities never happen again.
“You don’t need to be Indigenous to show your support,” she said. “You just need to be a human being.”