Indigenous crisis lines have fielded an explosion of calls for help from people across the country since members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School, dredging up traumatic memories for thousands of survivors of that national education system.
Indigenous non-profits running call lines say this type of support will continue to be crucial for survivors and their immediate families as more First Nations begin uncovering hidden remains at former school sites. There is no tally for how many former students are still alive, but Ottawa resolved 38,276 claims of sexual or serious physical abuse or other wrongful acts suffered by former students while attending these schools through an adjudication process that began in 2007 and formally ended this past March.
Estelle Edgar oversees the KUU-US Crisis Line that started in 1993 to help young members of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Ms. Edgar, whose traditional name is Uuyaqmiis and is of the Ditidaht and Hesquiaht Nations, said daily call volumes doubled to more than 80 people from across Canada after the news broke of the discovery in Kamloops, and their hotline was publicized as a place to turn to for help.
“From what I understand, everybody’s lines are just blowing up,” said Ms. Edgar, who was raised by residential school survivors. “A lot of people have been retraumatized: They have done a lot of work on themselves to continue to live in a world where racism is rampant and they’re looked down upon … and then to have this acknowledgment of the 215 unidentified children is just the tip of the iceberg because there’s 100 other residential schools and hundreds of other unmarked graves.”
She said her team has also received some calls from white Canadians “who are extremely crushed to realize that this is also their reality.”
A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada could not provide data Tuesday on call volumes to the 24-hour National Indian Residential School Crisis Line.
Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, said her North Vancouver-based charity has had requests for video counselling, e-mails and calls from survivors and their family members more than quadruple from roughly 640 interactions a day before the news made worldwide headlines May 28 to at least 3,000 in the week following.
To deal with the deluge, her complement of 14 counsellors added two shifts to their lone 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift so they could begin working around the clock, in part to field calls from survivors in Central and Eastern Canada. Ms. White’s group scrambled a team of five staff, some of whom are residential school survivors themselves, to travel to help members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
“Each of them were doing about 200 to 300 interactions a day; they were exhausted by the end,” Ms. White said.
The society is now asking the province for more funding to add four more people to work the crisis line’s overnight shifts.
Asked about this funding gap, Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that she has told the First Nations Health Authority, which helps fund the two B.C.-based crisis lines, that her ministry is ready to provide assistance.
“We recognize that trauma-informed mental, emotional and cultural supports are critical at this extremely difficult time,” her statement said.
In northwestern Quebec, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay is strengthening its telephone support line that covers roughly 21,000 people in nine Cree communities, according to board spokesperson Katherine Morrow. But, she added, survivors and their families have also been accessing mental-health supports at in-person clinics across the region since the discovery in Kamloops.
“It sent shock waves through all of the communities and it did send a lot of people into crisis,” Ms. Morrow said.
Ms. Edgar’s team of volunteer operators must go through 70 hours of crisis training to work at the KUU-US organization, which is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. She said they link roughly three-quarters of callers with further supports, such as counselling or offers of traditional healing in their own communities, during calls that can stretch to an hour. Sometimes, callers hang up within two minutes of reaching out, she said.
“Some people will call in and think they’re ready to talk and then they’re not,” said Ms. Edgar. “Then there are some people who just have to get it out, they have to be heard, and I encourage my phone operators not to rush.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.