Indigenous groups grapple with next steps after 215 unmarked graves found

First Nations communities and Indigenous groups across Canada are now grappling with what to do next after locating the remains of 215 children who were buried in unmarked graves near a residential school in British Columbia.

Last week, the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation revealed it had discovered what it believed are the bodies of 215 First Nations children who had been buried on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation has asked for privacy as it considers its own next steps, but it has already begun contacting other First Nations to identify the children. 

The Kamloops school is just one of 146 residential schools in Canada, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. First Nations groups must now decide what to do at the other locations, where it’s believed other unmarked graves could be located.

Pat Pratt-Malbeuf, a ceremonial elder in Quinton, Sask., with four generations of family members sent to residential schools, is calling for a spiritual ceremony a path forward. 

“Those brothers, sisters, children that never came home, ceremony’s the only thing that’s going to save them,” she told CTV News with tears in her eyes.

“No blaming.  Let’s just move together. We’re all one.”

Pratt-Malbeuf’s niece Sarain Fox, an Indigenous artist and activist, believes these burial sites should be recognized as sacred spaces.

Fox said she grew up hearing about the horrors her relatives faced at these schools.

“Babies being cemented in the walls and being buried there and that was part of the stories that I grew up hearing,” she said. “Those were tragic.”

In an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday, federal Justice Minister David Lametti said he was open to the idea of considering additional legal protections to residential schools with burial grounds to protect these sites from damage.

"I'm willing to look at that, that certainly would come within the bailiwick of the justice minister and the criminal law power and I'm certainly open to that," he said in the interview.

"Our Public Prosecution Service and police services are getting better, they have a lot of work to do, but they're getting much better at understanding the challenges of looking at these kinds of crimes that were committed against Indigenous people in the past."

When it comes to examining these burial grounds for any other unmarked graves, researchers believe that the affected communities need to be consulted beforehand.

“We ate together, we did ceremony together,” said Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta.  “We presented to the community so they understood what we're doing."

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., staff are investigating the possibility of burial grounds outside marked gravesites at a former residential school that is now home to Algoma University.

Similar investigations are underway at the locations of several residential schools in Saskatchewan.

“We’re on our way to another site,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. “The chief and some of the survivors have asked to keep it silent for now until we do the protocols.”

Meanwhile in Manitoba, Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias is calling for justice.

“There should be a criminal investigation,” he said. “Somebody needs to answer for these cases and we need some action.”

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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: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.