Calls grow for investigations at more residential school sites
Pressure is mounting on government to fund and support investigations at residential school sites.
At a drumming circle held by the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, Chief Leah George-Wilson told CTV News that hearing the remains of 215 children had been found at a former residential school was not as shocking as it should have been.
“What’s surprising is that we’re not hearing the support from any government level about looking at all of the Indian Residential School sites in British Columbia and in Canada,” she said. “I have friends from the Tk’enlumps area and I’ve heard other leadership say their elders come back and talk about who wasn’t there, and who went away or didn’t come back.”
The Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains were recently uncovered, was Canada’s largest before it closed in 1978. At it’s peak, it had up to 500 students attending.
During the drumming circle, Tsleil-Waututh elders shared horrific stories of their experience being separated from their families and forced into residential schools where they were beaten and abused.
“It’s going to be shocking for the young people to hear, but necessary,” said George-Wilson. "For so long, they felt like they had no voice.”
She said it’s time to support investigations into all the residential schools, including one that used to be on the grounds of what is now the St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School. St Paul’s Indian Residential School used to be on its parking lot. CTV News spoke with a school official who said renovation and construction have happened at that school, but nothing has been found.
“Tk’enlumps was able to do the work that they did because they had people who wrote grants or found funding to do that kind of work. It was not supported by any church or any level of government, and that, in my view, is wrong,” said George-Wilson.
She and other Indigenous leaders say these conversations need to keep happening, and Canadians of all walks of life need to apply pressure on both government and the church to make amends.
“I think what we need is a ground swell of mainstream Canada. Canada, is this what you’re made of? Canada, is this what we can support as human beings? I think not.”
Angela White, the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, told CTV News those conversations are happening at a grassroots level now.
“It is opening the eyes of some Canadians that kind of knew that something wasn’t right but weren’t sure how to take the truth and reconciliation testimony of the survivors, and so I think those people are ready to have those conversations” she said.
White explained it's important to start investigating other unmarked graves because there are whispers throughout the entire region when it comes to residential schools, and testimony passed down by previous generations of what’s happened.
“We may never get the full story or the full number because documents are missing, documents are destroyed," she said. "But at least giving some comfort to put in the labour to find them is important."
Speaking of the churches involved in running residential schools, George-Wilson said she believes there needs to be "some form of reparations."
"I don't know exactly what that looks like," she added.
Father Larry Lynn with the Vancouver Archdiocese described the discovery of children's remains at the former Kamloops residential school as a "shocking and terrible" tragedy.
“We don’t know exactly how it happened, we don’t know when it happened even, or who those children are or when they lived,” he said. "There’s so much not known about it, but I can tell you that in spite of not knowing anything other than there are (215), maybe more children there, it’s going to rock the world of the people that need to step up.”
He added that there have been apologies from the Catholic church over the years.
“The Bishops all across Canada have apologized, written formal apologies, stated them out loud, read them out,” said Lynn. "Pope Benedict the 16th formally apologized in 2009.”
George-Wilson wants to see a national day of mourning, during which First Nation groups can come together and hold their own ceremonies.
“I want Canadian people to understand what happened in our country – that our country may not be what we thought it was, but our country is still a pretty great place to be,” said George-Wilson. "We need to show the Indigenous people that this great place is theirs, that there is room in this great society for us.”
She explained that work starts by ensuring there are Indigenous voices in all governing institutions such as justice, child welfare, health care and education.
“We need to, as a society, ensure that all voices are being heard. In particular, the rights and title holders of this land, they need to be heard,” said George-Wilson.
In a statement, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir extended gratitude for the outpouring of support to their community.
“Thank you for helping us bring to light such hard truths that came from the preliminary findings regarding the unmarked burial sites of Kamloops Indian Residential School students so that we may begin the process of honouring the lost loved ones who are in our caretaking. We love, honour, and respect these children, their families, and communities,” she said.
She added Canada must take ownership and accountability to all Indigenous communities with survivors from residential schools.
“Regrettably, we know that many more children are unaccounted for,” she said. "We have heard that the same ... unmarked burial sites exists at other former residential school grounds.”
Work continues at their site as the community continues to learn all the facts from the discovery. A final report is expected in June.