“This is not something that a week from now we will forget just because it’s out of the news cycle,” Ontario’s Government House Leader, Paul Calandra, assured the legislature Tuesday.
He was referring to a pledge by his government to search former residential school properties in Ontario after a B.C. First Nation announced it had found the remains of 215 children at what was once the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Saskatchewan and Alberta have made a similar promise. B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said he expects the Catholic Church to help with identifying remains, and said if other communities now want further investigations at other potential grave sites, B.C would assist.
The announcement in Kamloops has prompted national and international media to cast a searing look at yet another horrific legacy left behind by the schools. But those who have spent years providing evidence of children who went missing or died there could be forgiven for being skeptical about Mr. Calandra’s assurances.
The same issue has fallen out of the news cycle before.
Ottawa reporter Kristy Kirkup noted that more than five years ago, anthropologist Scott Hamilton wrote a report entitled Where are the Children Buried? for the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He had hoped his report would be the beginning of important conversations about what to do with gravesites of uncounted thousands of children, and how best to protect, honour and commemorate them. Instead, not much happened.
“I filed my report. And that was pretty much the last I heard about this except reading the reports of the TRC like everyone else,” says Dr. Hamilton, who is also chair of the anthropology department at Lakehead University.
In his report, Dr. Hamilton said at least 3,200 children were documented as having died at the schools over 140 years of operation. That doesn’t include the numbers of students that were never accounted for. Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, has said the number could be as high as 15,000.
Dr. Hamilton wrote that while it was common for schools to be located near a church and a cemetery, the cemeteries associated with residential schools have mostly been “abandoned, disused and vulnerable to accidental disturbance,” he wrote.
“Developing a strategy to address this problem is complicated, and will require long-term and thoughtful discussions about the most appropriate documentation, commemoration and protection procedures. This report should be treated as an opening effort designed to be a catalyst for further investigation.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 findings included a 266-page report entitled Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.
“Many, if not most, of the several thousand children who died in residential schools are likely to be buried in unmarked and untended graves,” the report said. “Subjected to institutionalized child neglect in life, they have been dishonoured in death.”
The commission used satellite imagery and maps on a sample of school locations in an effort to locate unmarked gravesites, and found possible cemeteries “in a surprisingly large number” of locations.
Globe columnist Tanya Talaga has been in Kamloops this week, witnessing the grief that has washed over the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community, which announced the 215 children. She watched as a young boy began singing and drumming.
“As his voice waned, he was answered by nearly 100 hand drummers who boomed forward in unity, gathered here from other nations and communities throughout Okanagan and Kamloops,” Tanya wrote.
“This is the sound of the drum. The beating of a heart.”
She asked the questions: Where is the list of the children’s names? Why didn’t the police investigate? What in God’s name are they doing now?
“The larger issue of the residential schools and of all of those missing kids kind of fell off the table in the face of other burning urgencies in the news cycle …,” Dr. Hamilton said.
“And the Kamloops story has sort of forced that back on to the public agenda, has forced it back into the public awareness. And it will be really important for us not to let it slide into the background again.”
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