The Morning Brief – 06.02.21
By Bruce Carson
Canadians were rightfully horrified last week to learn of the mass grave of at least 215 children at what was the Kamloops residential school.
This is something that we normally associate with tragedies in far off lands.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation where the children were found said it is unthinkable that this was spoken about “but never documented at the Kamloops residential school.”
Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief said “this really resurfaces the issue of residential schools and the wounds from that legacy towards Indian people.”
This is the first time since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented its report in June, 2015 that Canadians have actually had to confront the horror and devastation residential schools caused to human life, the lives of Indigenous children.
That horror can no longer be hidden in the pages of reports to government; it is now on full display for all to see.
Where do we go from here?
Work is underway for forensic experts to identify and repatriate the remains from the Kamloops residential school. The B.C. Coroner’s Office plus the Royal British Columbia Museum and forensic experts will all be working together on this.
Tristin Hopper in his National Post article turns attention to the question of why so many children died in residential schools.
He notes there are “previously forgotten graves, all belonging to children who died at Kamloops residential school and are now acknowledged in what Chief Casimir termed an “unthinkable lesson.”
Unknown deaths occurred in many residential schools with children in unmarked graves. Former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Murray Sinclair once put the total at 6,000 but others now have put the number much higher. It was also normal practice not to return the bodies of the children to their families.
The main killer was tuberculosis and similar diseases which spread quickly in cramped quarters with the absence of proper medical care. Accidental deaths through fire and then there were deaths as children tried to escape and died frozen to death or by drowning.
The TRC came out of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, 2007 and was formed “to facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians.”
The discovery of this mass grave will put real stress on “reconciliation,” which has not yet been clearly defined. How can survivors and Canada’s Indigenous people participate or even think about reconciliation, when such an horrific discovery is made, all the while knowing that that there are many more unmarked graves out there waiting to be discovered?
This is the question that Indigenous Canadians as well as Canada’s political leaders must grapple with as this horror is acknowledged.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center referred to the “entire residential school system as a human rights violation.” She added that “the human rights dimensions of this have not been fully accounted for and there’s more work to be done here to address the legacy of these schools…A mass grave is a place where there is probably evidence of gross human rights violations.” She suggests Canadian governments need to have a “framework” in place to deal with the discovery of graves at residential school sites.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society called for action following the discovery of the children’s remains. The Society wants the Catholic Church that ran the school from 1890-1966 and the federal government which ran it until it closed in 1978 to take action.
Angela White, Executive Director of IRSSS said “reconciliation does not mean anything if there is no action to the words.” She went on to say “well wishes and prayers only go so far.” We need to be able to continue the work like the IRSSS does in a meaningful way. IRSSS co-chair Rick Alex called for action specifically from the Pope.
Speaking of the federal government Chief Casimir said “there is an important ownership and accountability to both Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and all the communities and families that were affected, and that needs to happen and take place.”
On June 12, 2008 Prime Minister Harper delivered in the House of Commons an apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. As part of the apology he said “two primary objectives of the Residential School system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and culture to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
These objectives were based on the assumption that Aboriginal children and their spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some thought as it was infamously said “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today we recognize that the policy of assimilation was wrong, caused great harm and has no place in our country.”
One can draw a straight line from the objectives of the school system to the death of so many children attending residential schools.
So where do we go from here, building on previous statements that there must be action?
When Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, there was an opportunity for transformational change in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. That challenge and opportunity still exists for whichever leader and party wants to take it up.
The government, and indeed all opposition leaders and their parties should use this tragic event to rededicate themselves to reconciliation and working through the TRC Calls to Action and the 231 Calls for Justice contained in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
While we may not know exactly what reconciliation means or where it will lead, we need to move towards it now.
Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation said in an interview on Sunday, this renewed journey should start with love and respect. We need to work to give meaning to reconciliation. He called for the prime minister to lower flags and to declare a national day of mourning.
He added later “this is a chance for the people of this country to understand that we are not talking about just our children, we’re talking about the children of this country, the moment that I do not want the country to ever forget.”
Sol Mamakwa, Indigenous NDP member of the Ontario Legislature said “it is an open secret that our children lay on the property of the former schools –an open secret that Canadians can no longer walk away from. Every school site must be searched for graves of our ancestors.”
What Mamakwa is suggesting seems to be the way forward, at least for this part of reconciliation. Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan spoke of a healing journey with the federal government fully funding the discovery of buried children on residential school sites.
Kisha Supernant, professor at the University of Alberta and Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology stated that action must be led by Indigenous communities with federal resources. She said “this action to support communities is long overdue.” She added more Canadians are now “feeling and recognizing the impact of residential schools.”
And perhaps Canadians, now seeing the extent of this tragedy first hand, will have less patience with political leaders who talk with no action. Indigenous issues, at the very least the TRC’s Calls to Action 71-76 dealing with all of the matters now (Missing Children and Burial Information) before us and being dealt with in relation to the Kamloops residential school tragedy need to be addressed, and addressed quickly.
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