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Dresses as makeshift memorials for the children whose remains were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, June 19, 2021.Amber Bracken/The New York Times News Service

There was a moment last week during a webinar put on by Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, on how First Nations communities can move forward in recovering Indigenous children from unmarked graves, that I had to stand up and walk away from the screen.

No matter how many times we hear about the genocide that has occurred and continues in this country we call Canada, sometimes the details pierce.

It was a question from one of the Indigenous participants, watching in order to learn about how to recover the children who never came home from more than 139 Indian Residential Schools. Children we know are out there, waiting to be found.

Lost lives, lost culture: The forgotten history of residential schools

The question was, what kind of radar equipment could be used to detect bodies of infants in the “school” walls.

Sharp breath in.

Another moment. The search of former school dump sites.

Over the coming days, news of the recovery of children who died at Indian residential schools will continue to roll across this country, each child found a pummelling to Canada’s battered image. Every discovery made will come with its own awful story, driving home what truly occurred in “schools” that are surrounded by fields into which children’s broken, neglected and abused bodies were tossed.

Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation and in particular Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir deserve honours of bravery for leading all Indigenous Peoples now walking down this road of recovery.

Everyone has read the headlines. Now this is the hard truth of the process.

They organized this July 22 event so all nations searching for thousands of missing children who were torn away from their parents and sent to Indian Residential Schools, day schools, Indian Hospitals and asylums would have a blueprint on where to start.

They did it because they know all their brothers and sisters are out there, struggling with trying to wrap their heads around how to move forward. Everyone is at various stages of this gruelling process.

The webinar focused on practical steps, but it began in ceremony and with Kukpi7 Casimir acknowledging the principle of “walking on two legs” that she is leading her community steeped in both Secwe̓pemc and Western ways of thought. This event was put on in partnership with the Canadian Archaeological Association and the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, in order to teach about remote sensing in grave detection.

With all Kukpi7 Casimir is dealing with hosting wildfire evacuees from communities all around her, band elections, worldwide media attention on the 200 children found under the apple trees at the Kamloops Indian Residential School she has found the time to educate all others.

As the search for children continues, communities must marry survivors’ oral stories and memories with science in order to discover all unmarked graves.

This process of recovery must be Indigenous led. There is no other way.

After more than a century of government policies, such as the Indian Act, that were put in place to assimilate and destroy us, the federal government or any colonial entity cannot be put in charge of how this recovery process is going to look. Canada lost any semblance of having that place of honour in this sacred duty about 154 years ago.

Do not set up a “program” with say, $10-million or $27-million in it, and then ask Indigenous communities to apply for the funds after filling out detailed forms.

Government bureaucrats can be nowhere near this.

Further, Canada and the provinces cannot put a price tag on recovery. And perhaps most importantly, the data collected, every single finding made and file opened, cannot sit in a federal or provincial government database.

No. Canada went down that road before and it led to the hiding, burning or denying of the presence of files and evidence of where our children are.

A skeptical eye must also be focused on Canadian universities. Some had faculty members conducting medical experiments on children within those residential schools. In fact, from the early 1940s to 1952, scientists worked with Indian Affairs bureaucrats to conduct starvation experiments. Children were kept malnourished and given certain additives and untested mineral supplements to see how their bodies reacted. One of those schools was Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. In my book Seven Fallen Feathers, I wrote how there are at least 14 bodies buried under the Cecilia Jeffrey property.

The horrors of these truths are going to keep on screaming to the forefront.

But this one truth is known: Indigenous peoples are the only ones to take the lead. The memories of our missing children are the only motivating factor in how to walk forward, one leg at a time.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066

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