PM says cabinet discussing 'further' actions in response to mass grave uncovered at residential school

Amid calls to go beyond lowering flags at federal buildings and to fund the research and excavation of residential school burial sites Canada-wide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t have any tangible next steps to announce Monday but said discussions are underway following a horrific discovery in British Columbia.

Trudeau said he will be speaking with his cabinet about the “next and further” actions the federal government should take in response to the discovery of remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Trudeau said that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal will be discussing what role the federal government should be playing, noting “an awful lot” remains to be done when it comes to reconciliation.

Trudeau said determining where and how many more Indigenous children’s remains may be buried in this country is “is an important part of discovering the truth,” and there will be more done by the government, but offered no concrete commitment.

“We are committed to reconciliation. We are committed to truth. We are committed to being there to help the Indigenous communities understand the past and move forward into the future the right way. And as they make requests, as there is a need for discovering more, we will continue to be there,” Trudeau said. “We haven't looked at exactly what the processes, or the needs are entirely, but Canada will be there to support indigenous communities as we discover the extent of this trauma.”

On May 28, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that it had found the remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, using ground-penetrating radar. The discovery prompted calls for a national day of mourning and saw people across Canada set up memorials.

“We promised concrete action, and that’s how we’ll support survivors, families, and Indigenous peoples,” said the prime minister. “Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality, a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it,” said Trudeau.

Locating the remains of these Indigenous children was made possible in part due to a grant from the B.C. government. The prime minister suggested Monday that other provincial governments should step up with grants to do this work, saying that he fears but also hopes that “will lead to discoveries of even further tragedies.”

Among the concrete actions opposition MPs called for on Monday were for the federal government to follow through on the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action under its jurisdiction, and to stop fighting residential school settlements in court.

“It is not good enough for the federal Liberal government to just make symbolic gestures to commemorate this horrible loss. We are calling on the federal government to do something concrete. The Liberal government can't on one hand grieve this horrible tragedy, this horrible loss while they are still taking Indigenous kids to court,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who became visibly emotional when speaking about the lives lost and the families left behind without answers.

He also is calling for the federal government to fully fund the investigation of other former residential school sites and to put more sustainable funding towards healing initiatives.

“There were three year old babies in the ground… How many more are there?... Our children’s bodies deserve to come home,” said NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, joining Singh and others in directly putting calls to the Liberals to do more.

ACTION? OR DISCUSSIONS?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its final report on residential schools in 2015, concluding that they constituted a cultural genocide. The comprehensive and extensive findings detail the inhumane mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children who were taken from their families and sent to one of the more than 130 institutions across the country. The last school closed in 1996, 25 years ago.

The TRC’s register of confirmed deaths identified 3,200 students but work is still ongoing to uncover what could be thousands more deaths that went undocumented.

Six of the TRC’s 94 calls to action focused on missing children and burial information, five of which the federal government is playing a central role in.

Among what’s been asked for: maps showing the location of deceased residential school children; appropriate ceremonies, markers, and reburials; procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried.

So far, according to the government’s own progress report on these calls, little more has occurred than: “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has begun discussions with various partners... towards collaborating on an engagement strategy to gain a better understanding of the range of Indigenous family and community needs and interests and about how best to move forward in a comprehensive manner.”

A 2009 request for $1.5 million specifically for helping in the search for graves was denied. In the 2019 federal budget, $33.8 million was earmarked to be spent over three years to fund the National Residential School Student Death Register and to help “establish and maintain an online registry of known residential school cemeteries.”

Asked repeatedly why more has not been done, and when more concrete progress can be expected, Trudeau said that he knows there is impatience, but the federal government can’t act alone.

“If it were only done by Ottawa to solve these challenges, it might have been done long ago but it would have been done wrong. You cannot move forward on true reconciliation… unless it is done in partnership with Indigenous communities, leaders, and individuals,” Trudeau said.

In a late afternoon press conference, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he wrote to Trudeau to ask he take “immediate action” to address the discovery and said any rapid measures taken in partnership with Indigenous communities would be backed by his caucus. He’s also calling for Parliament to quickly pass a bill that would amend Canada’s citizenship oath to include a promise to respect Indigenous treaty rights.

“This weekend, my nine-year-old son Jack asked me why the flags were lowered to half-mast in Ottawa. I had the difficult task of explaining to him the terrible news… ‘Kids aren't supposed to die at school dad,’ he said to me. As a parent, it is devastating to think of 215 children buried by their school, and lost for decades. It should also be a shocking reminder of our duty to heal the wounds from this horrific part of our history,” O’Toole said.

MOMENT OF SILENCE HELD

At the start of the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee meeting on Monday morning, where Senators are studying Bill C-15, the legislation to bring Canadian law in alignment with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a moment of silence was held to mark the loss of these children.

“Today we mourn with First Nations peoples, their families and communities, and we share their profound sense of loss,” said committee chair Independent Senator Dan Christmas.

“The TRC brought to light the truth about Canadian history and what took place at residential schools, and particularly the issue of missing children,” said Bennett at the committee Monday afternoon.

“I think we know that once you know the truth, you can't un-know the truth,” said Bennett, adding that her focus remains on culturally-appropriate approaches to identifying these children, locating burial sites, and commemorating those who died.

Accompanying her, Justice Minister David Lametti said the discovery of the mass grave left him “heartbroken… and to be honest, angry.” He also vowed to “examine all options” from a legal perspective.

'TAKE-NOTE' DEBATE CONFIRMED

After question period on Monday, Singh requested that the House of Commons hold an emergency debate to discuss the state of reconciliation and propose concrete next steps to take.

Speaker Anthony Rota denied the request, saying it didn’t meet the criteria spelled out in the House rule book, though seconds later Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen sought and received unanimous consent from other MPs for a “take-note” debate. It’s scheduled to happen on Tuesday, June 1.

“Many have spent the weekend in grief, reliving painful memories and remembering not only the lives of these 215 children but also the lives of thousands of children across Canada who never came home. Just as families and communities are discussing this important issue, so too must Parliament,” Singh said in a letter to the Speaker signaling his intention to request the debate.

Before launching into an announcement on a Black entrepreneurship initiative on Monday, Trudeau offered his first public comments beyond social media posts on the “heartbreaking” news and the grief being felt across the country.

“As a dad, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have my kids taken away from me, and as prime minister, I am appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities,” said Trudeau.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said that the discovery is “a stain on our country.”

“More action needs to be taken. This is not a time for talk. We have to be listening and taking cues from First Nations leaders across the country… and this call for action needs to be supported across political lines,” Rempel Garner said. “I sincerely hope that that's something that Parliament is seized with this week.”

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said that her thoughts are with all of those who have been “triggered by this, this terrible discovery that once again highlights the absolute genocidal tragedy of our residential school system,” and called on the federal government to demand the Pope apologize on behalf of the Catholic church for its role.

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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.