'Reconciliation demands honesty and transparency,' says Tk'emlups te Secwepemc chief

Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir speaks during a news conference ahead of a ceremony to honour residential school survivors and mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, in Kamloops, BC., on Thursday, September 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A line of vehicles stretched toward a powwow arbour at Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia, as residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders prepared for Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Singing and drumming were scheduled to ring out at 2:15 p.m. Thursday to honour what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves detected earlier this year at the site of one of the largest former residential schools near the reserve.

Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir told reporters “steps toward reconciliation demand honesty and transparency.” She repeated earlier calls for full disclosure of church and government records and information related to the residential institutions.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald was also at the site.

“This is a day to honour the survivors, the intergenerational survivors and the victims of these institutions of assimilation and genocide,” said Archibald.

“We will actually continue to find and recover our little children in the coming years. We're at the beginning of this process ... Now is the time for accountability in action.”

The federal government announced in June the new statutory holiday would take place every Sept. 30 and build on the momentum of the grassroots-led Orange Shirt Dayto commemorate the history and ongoing impacts of the church-run institutions where Indigenous children were torn from their families and abused.

The day is a direct response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Elsewhere across the country communities and cities recognized the day with events and ceremonies.

On the Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, where children attended the Marieval Indian Residential School up until the mid-90s, Chief Cadmus Delorme told a crowd that the day is about healing.

Cowessess is another First Nation that reported the discovery of unmarked graves or burial sites at a former school using ground-penetrating radar. In June, it said 751 graves were believed to have been found.

“We don't want people to feel sorry for us. We want to heal. We want to get stronger,” Delorme said.

“The truth is going to be really tough. Even for Indigenous people, the trust is hard to acknowledge because of the pain. But we can't have reconciliation without truth. Today is a day for people to come together.”

On Parliament Hill, there was a sea of orange, as several thousand people gathered on the lawn in front of the Peace Tower for a morning ceremony under a bright blue sky.

Event organizer Jenny Sutherland said the day was to be about peace, not a day for protest.

“The nation is finally awakening to our story,” Sutherland told the crowd, which continued to grow over two hours of speeches, songs and prayers.

Algonquin Anishinabe Elder Claudette Commanda said it was a day to reflect and honour those who never came home.

“Two-hundred and fifteen little voices woke the country,” she said. “From the moment those little ones went into the ground, they were speaking in spirit. They knew there would come a day that we would all hear their voices. And let us hold those children in our heart forevermore.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sept. 30 is a day to reflect on the painful and lasting impacts of residential schools and to honour survivors, their families and their communities.

“We must all learn about the history and legacy of residential schools. It's only by facing these hard truths, and righting these wrongs, that we can move forward together toward a more positive, fair, and better future,” he said in a statement.

It is estimated more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend roughly 140 schools that operated across the country beginning in 1831. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.

With files from Mickey Djuric at Cowessess First Nation and Mia Rabson in Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.