Governor-General Mary Simon delivered a eulogy for the missing children of the Kamloops Indian Residential School on Monday, as the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation gathered to mark the completion of a year-long period of grieving.
“Today, we make ourselves heard across the country. Although it is hard, we are telling Canadians and the world about our wounds and pain,” said Ms. Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor-General.
In May of 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that about 200 unmarked and previously undocumented gravesites of children had been found on the grounds of the school, once the largest residential school in Canada before it closed in 1969.
The Governor-General, who is Inuk, was warmly received early in the day when she spoke. In contrast, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived as a guest just ahead of the evening feast, an angry crowd surrounded him, loudly singing “Canada is all Indian land.”
Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir struggled to maintain calm. “People make mistakes,” she said. “We need to have respectful conversations.”
When she brought Mr. Trudeau on stage, she pleaded with the crowd to allow survivors of the residential school to meet with him as planned.
When he did address the gathering, Mr. Trudeau was brief. “This is about remembering who we lost,” he said. “To those who are still filled with hurt and anger, I hear that.”
“We have a lot of work together to do as a country.”
Mr. Trudeau had travelled to Kamloops last October to apologize in person to the community for spending the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on a family holiday. The Sept. 30 national day was established in response to the revelations at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and he had been invited to spend the day visiting the site where the graves had been identified.
In her remarks, the Governor-General said: “At this residential school and others like it across the country, churches and governments eradicated Indigenous languages and identity through corrupt policies. They took away our stories. It’s unimaginable that a place of learning was so cruel. It’s inexcusable that people could commit these atrocities, or that people could stand silent as they were committed.”
For the Tk’emlúps people, the day-long ceremony on Monday marks the end of the traditional grieving period, and formally begins a time of healing.
Kúkpi7 Casimir told the gathering earlier that the Catholic Church still has work to do to complete meaningful reparations for its role in running the school, and she called on Pope Francis to come to British Columbia during his July visit to Canada.
But, she said, the findings at the school have created a greater understanding of Canada’s history. “The unmarked graves brought truth to the world, and the world stood with us in solidarity,” she said.
That healing process includes a looming decision on exhumation of the remains. The community is weighing whether to proceed with an archeological dig of the suspected graves. Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist who conducted the survey using ground-penetrating radar, has said that only forensic investigation with excavation could confirm the presence of human remains.
Kúkpi7 Casimir said her nation is working with a legal team, and advisers within the community and from other affected nations, to determine the next steps.
“Today, answers are still needed. Further investigations are required,” she said.
As she spoke in the open-air Pow Wow Arbour, an eagle drifted overhead. She stopped to acknowledge its presence, saying the eagles will carry the prayers that were offered on Monday.
Seven years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report into the history and legacy of residential schools, declaring that the system of church-run, government-funded schools was cultural genocide. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented 4,117 deaths at residential schools, where Indigenous children were abused, neglected, malnourished and exposed to diseases, and estimates that there are thousands more.
But the announcement by the Tk’emlúps last year prompted a public reckoning with Canada’s history in ways that those earlier, devastating findings did not. Pope Francis has now apologized for the conduct of members of the Catholic Church who ran the Kamloops school and many of Canada’s residential schools, and is set to travel to Canada this summer on a pilgrimage of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Jeanette Jules, who has helped lead the cultural response to Le Estcwicwe̓y̓ – the ̓Tk’emlúps name for the missing – delivered the morning prayer Monday for the children who did not come home, but also the survivors who still carry deep trauma from their experiences.
“Their spirits need to be at rest,” she said. “Their families need to come and gather them and bring them home and one day, all of that will come to be.”
Nikki Fraser, a ̓Tk’emlúps councillor, said in an interview that her community played host to thousands of people who have come to commemorate Le Estcwicwe̓y̓ over the past year, even as their own members have struggled with the news.
“It brought up a lot of trauma,” she said, but added: “It’s a sacred responsibility, not a burden.”
The memorial ceremony included prayers, hand drumming, singing, jingle dress dancing and a feast.
It was also a celebration of a culture that has survived. “They tried to assimilate us, and here we are, still strong,” Shane Gottfriedson said.
As the ceremony came to a close, Mr. Trudeau returned to the stage to offer words directed to the survivors at the gathering. “What happened to these children here is unthinkable,” he said. “Some of you went to these so-called schools. We honour your courage... We are here for you.”
Indigenous children from across B.C. and other provinces were sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was open for almost 80 years, under a government policy that sought to assimilate Indigenous cultures. The Tk’emlúps cannot make the decision about what will happen with the remains without consulting with that broader Indigenous community, Ms. Fraser noted.
She said there may be some who want to bring their ancestors home. Exhumation, however, would be a controversial choice.
“That’s going to be heavy, if it happens,” she said. “Culturally, your resting spot is a sacred place. We would never step on top of you. To dig it up, that is so foreign to us.”
Speaking to reporters after the event, Mr. Trudeau said his government will support the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc - and any other Indigenous community that is proceeding with searches for missing children - if the community moves forward with exhumation.
“It is up to the communities to determine the next steps they want to take, how they want to proceed in the mourning, the grieving, and healing,” he said. “The federal government will be there for whatever it is the community, and communities like it across the country, need.”
The discovery made international headlines, with a scientific confirmation of what many survivors of Canada’s residential-school system have maintained for decades: That in addition to systemic abuse and violence endured by children who attended, thousands never came home.
The find in Kamloops led other Indigenous communities across the country to launch probes into additional residential schools. Since last May, the federal government has dispensed $78.3-million to 70 Indigenous groups and communities to fund an array of fieldwork, research and commemoration projects. Roughly 40 communities have received money for ground searches, and nine have announced preliminary findings.
Perhaps the most elaborate search is taking place in Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont. The community is buying ground-penetrating radar equipment, training local staff to conduct searches, undertaking oral and documentary research and appointing three people to oversee a police task force that will probe deaths at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. The community’s search site spans 240 hectares.
The approach is to treat the grounds of the former Mohawk school as a crime scene and investigate it using local resources and expertise as much as possible.
The Tk’emlúps are inviting other Indigenous communities to come to Kamloops to participate in the community’s next steps. “This is something that has not happened in the history here in Canada. There’s no set of guidelines, no checklists,” Kúkpi7 Casimer said.
With a report from Patrick White.
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