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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde on June 18, 2021, in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The detection of remains of children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia has woken up both the country and the world to genocide in Canada, says Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

Mr. Bellegarde, who will be leaving his role on July 6 ahead of the election of the next national chief, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that residential schools, which involved the removal of Indigenous children from their families, language and culture, meet the definition of genocide outlined in the Genocide Convention, including inflicting harm, forcibly removing children and death.

It is a human-rights violation of the highest degree that children who attended the institutions were buried and forgotten, he said.

“This is a validation of what survivors of residential schools have been saying,” he said. “It has woken up the country; it has woken up the world to that genocide. And Canadians are demanding justice and reconciliation.”

The Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves: What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far

“It’s unfathomable:” Canada’s lost residential school children

At the end of May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said a preliminary search using ground-penetrating radar discovered the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops residential school. The announcement immediately touched off commemorations across Canada and demands for provincial governments and Ottawa to take greater action, including to help communities search the grounds of former schools.

Embracing the truth, as difficult as it is, has to happen, Mr. Bellegarde said. Canadians are demanding from their leaders at the federal and provincial levels that “this has got to be dealt with,” he added.

He said there were more than 130 residential schools that operated in Canada, with Kamloops being just one of them. The next step is to ensure that proper research and investigation of former schools can be done in a respectful way, he said, noting work will need to be led by leadership in First Nations, along with elders, community members.

“This is sacred work. This is spiritual work. It has be done properly.”

It is incumbent upon governments to ensure there are proper human and financial resources when requested, Mr. Bellegarde said, to ensure that calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are fully implemented with respect to missing children and burial information. The TRC spent six years examining the legacy of Canada’s residential schools.

Mr. Bellegarde said there needs to be investigation, remembrance and commemoration of all sites where “these deaths happened to these little ones.”

Last week, after the Kamloops announcement, Ontario said it would spend $10-million over three years to identify, investigate and commemorate residential-school burial sites across the province.

The federal government has said it will send $27-million to communities on an urgent basis to help Indigenous peoples research missing children, hire archeological search companies and commemorate the dead. Mr. Bellegarde said this amount will not be enough to do what is required but said it is a commitment that can be built upon.

The Catholic Church and any institution involved with the administration of the schools that has records should open up those records as well, Mr. Bellegarde added.

“People need to know: Who are these little ones? Who are these children? Where did they come from? How did they die?”

Former TRC chair Murray Sinclair told The Globe the federal government needs to pay for investigators to find out what happened to Indigenous children who died or went missing from the schools, to determine if “cover-ups” took place. He said experienced investigators would need the power to subpoena records from governments and the churches that ran the schools, and have access to the locations.

Mr. Bellegarde said survivors told the TRC, for example, about young girls who were impregnated by priests, and there are questions about what happened to the babies.

“There has to be adequate human and financial resources put aside so this proper research and investigation can happen,” he said, adding there are “215 spirits waking up everybody toward truth and reconciliation and accountability and restitution.”

“They were forgotten,” he said. “They just said, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ ”

Mr. Bellegarde, who was first elected to his role in late 2014 and again in 2018, is also reflecting now on the past seven years he spent as national chief of the AFN, an advocacy organization representing more than 900,000 First Nations people in 634 communities across the country.

In December, the 58-year-old announced he would not be seeking re-election in July and that he would instead spend the remainder of his term on advocacy. He insists that he does not know what is next for his career and that he will be taking time to rest and reset.

During his tenure as national chief, Mr. Bellegarde, from Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, emphasized the need to educate Canadians and governments so that they can understand the need to close the divide between First Nations and non-First Nations people on issues including housing, water, infrastructure, access to broadband and proper health and education.

He said while there has been progress, this does not mean parity.

“We’ve definitely moved the yardsticks,” he said. “But we need to maintain momentum and we need Canadians to get it – that this momentum must be maintained.”

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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