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UPDATE: Trudeau vows help after Indigenous kids’ unmarked graves found, but offers no details

(UPDATE: June 1 @ 5:33 am): As memorials with tiny shoes have elicited cries of grief across the nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are facing tough questions about why little has been done to implement recommendations released six years ago to find and document the unmarked graves of Indigenous children.

Speaking in sombre tones at a virtual event in Ottawa Monday, Trudeau reflected on the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, calling it “heartbreaking news.”

He said he is “appalled” at the “shameful policy” that ripped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools — a collective ordeal that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found in 2015 amounted to a “cultural genocide.”

But when pressed for details about precisely what Ottawa is prepared to offer by way of support to find, identify and memorialize thousands of children who died at residential schools, Trudeau remained vague.

“There is obviously more to do and I think there will be more that we will do,” he said.

“We have committed as a government to be there for reconciliation, but also to be there for truth and that is an important step. So yes, we will be there to work with communities on the things they need and on the things we all need to know.”

He pointed to funding committed in the 2019 federal budget of $33.8 million over three years to develop and maintain a national residential school student death register and an online registry of residential school cemeteries.

A national student death register has since been created, which currently contains 4,118 children, and is being maintained by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The centre notes that research efforts are ongoing and the number of children listed is expected increase over time. The centre says it began this work thanks to a “a one-time funding contribution” from the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Affairs.

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, says this funding commitment falls woefully short of what is needed. Calling the tragic discovery in Kamloops a “catalyst,” Bellegarde says it’s time for the Liberals to immediately dedicate more resources, both financial and human, to fully investigate all Indigenous child deaths at residential schools.

“I’ve been getting a lot of texts, a lot of phone calls (from) survivors, chiefs, leadership, saying this has to be further researched and investigated. Kamloops was one school. There were over 130 residential schools that were operating across Canada,” Bellegarde said.

“You have all these great reports and all these great commission recommendations, but there’s always been a lack of full implementation of them. And here’s another good example.”

Several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action focus directly on the horrors inflicted on children in residential school. Following six years of extensive study, the commission made recommendations on efforts governments, justice systems and church officials should take to try to locate, name and commemorate the children who died.

Six of these recommendations specifically list the actions the commission determined should be done to address missing children and burial information, including funding and co-ordination support to locate and protect school burial sites, both known and unknown.

Asked for a detailed accounting of the $33.8 million pledged in 2019 toward these six particular calls to action, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said the government hosted a series of 16 virtual engagement sessions with over 140 participants over the summer and fall of 2020 to hear from Indigenous Peoples and organizations on how to move forward on implementing the TRC recommendations.

Ottawa also received guidance to develop a national approach to notifying family members of the locations of their children’s burials and efforts to work with First Nations, provinces and territories, churches and landowners on appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children, said Bennett’s spokeswoman, Ani Dergalstanian.

A total of $2.6 million was given to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for its work on the student death register.

“The remaining $27.1 million will be allocated to supporting the important work of communities in locating, memorializing and commemorating those children who died while at Indian Residential Schools,” Dergalstanian said.

The TRC’s final report further included a 273-page volume documenting the searing stories of families whose children were forcibly taken and never returned. It also includes testimony from survivors of the schools who remember watching their classmates fall ill and die at alarming rates.

“These examples point to a larger picture: many students who went to residential school never returned. They were lost to their families. They died at rates that were far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often uninformed of their sickness and death. They were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves. No one took care to count how many died or to record where they were buried,” the report says.

“The most basic of questions about missing children — Who died? Why did they die? Where are they buried? — have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government.”

Federal New Democrats called for an emergency debate Monday in the House of Commons on the grisly discovery in British Columbia.

Leader Jagmeet Singh said the government has not done enough to implement the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is not good enough for the Liberal government to offer platitudes and make symbolic gestures, such as lowering flags on Parliament Hill to half-mast, Singh said.

“It’s not enough to just reflect on the pain of this injustice, the federal government has to (have) the responsibility to do something about it.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Monday he agrees with the TRC’s findings that what happened to Indigenous children was a “cultural genocide,” indicating a marked change in position from former party leader and prime minister Stephen Harper, who avoided using the term when the commission issued its findings and recommendations in 2015.

“It is an atrocity so we have to act,” O’Toole said.

“Today I’m saying let’s act, let’s act together, I’m sure there’s will within all parties. I’d like the prime minister to move.”

On Monday, the Commons unanimously supported a special “take-note” debate on this issue to take place on Tuesday, when MPs will individually be able to make their views known.

But many Indigenous leaders are demanding more than speeches in Parliament.

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, says the grounds of all former residential schools should be searched with similar ground penetrating radar used in Kamloops. She also is calling for a full inquiry into the deaths at the BC school.

“The families deserve answers. First Nations, Métis and Inuit people deserve answers. Canadians deserve answers. And these children, who were denied the right to live their full lives, deserve the justice that will begin to happen only when all of the facts about their deaths are made public,” Whitman said.

(Original story: May 31 @ 5:25 am): A First Nations teacher says the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia is a triggering event for students who regularly learn about the history of wrongs against Indigenous people.

Rick Joe said a provincewide kindergarten-to-Grade 12 curriculum includes lessons on everything from respect for First Nations culture to the legacy of residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, so students hearing about the remains found last week in Kamloops will need support.

“This is very triggering. I have been asking for our school counsellors, for administrators and for youth care workers to take that extra time to check in on the Indigenous members,” he said Sunday.

Joe is particularly concerned about First Nations foster children who are overrepresented in the child welfare system and include those whose families were forcibly taken to residential schools like the one in Kamloops, the largest such facility in Canada until 1969, when its operations were transferred from the Catholic Church to the federal government. The facility was then run as a day school until it was closed in 1978.

<who> Photo credit: Canadian Press

Joe, who is a high school teacher in Chilliwack and works with First Nations students, said he has seen the sadness of generations of racism turned into anger among those he mentors.

He said young students will have to contend with intergenerational trauma, for which they’ll need support in coming days as more details emerge about the buried children who were believed to be as young as age three.

Joe was at a previously scheduled meeting of teachers on Saturday when the discovery was being discussed, and said he knew he had to call for some kind of action by educators to raise awareness of the pain inflicted on Indigenous Peoples.

“Everyone’s going to hurt, not just First Nations or Aboriginal children,” he said.

He made a motion at a scheduled meeting of educators on Saturday that teachers wear orange and gather to walk into their schools together at the start of each day this week and that flags be lowered to half mast.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said the union endorsed the call and teachers will be taking action to show students there needs be a response to the heart-wrenching discovery.

Mooring said school administrators and support staff should also be included in sensitivity training when it comes biases that lead to racism, which is part of the education system, the same as in other parts of society.

She said the teachers’ collective agreement includes a move to work toward increasing hiring of Indigenous teachers as universities offer more education programs for those looking to enter teaching as a career.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation has said the discovery in Kamloops was confirmed with the help of ground-penetrating radar and that more bodies may be found because the entire school grounds have not yet been searched.

Eric Simons, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, said the radar would have identified 215 grave shafts, not actual bodies, as well as changes in the soil, with some of it being more compressed.

Simons said he’s been working with a First Nation at the site of a residential school on Penelakut Island where children’s remains are believed to have been buried between 1890 and 1975, when the facility was closed.

Much more work is left to be done at the site on one of the Gulf Islands in BC, he said of the island previously known as Kuper Island, before it was renamed about a decade ago in honour of the Penelakut First Nation.

It’s hard to say what next steps will be taken to try and identify remains at the former residential school in Kamloops, and each First Nation would decide on how to deal with the burial site depending on their cultural protocols, Simon said.

The flag at Vancouver city hall and park board facilities was lowered Sunday to half-mast, as were flags in various other communities and on federal and provincial buildings.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he would be speaking with the province’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister on Sunday evening to discuss how the city and BC could work together to “advance reconciliation and truly begin to reckon with the full history of genocide in Canada.”

“The legacy of this violence remains with us to this day, and it is incumbent upon all non-Indigenous Canadians to not only atone for this legacy but also help with the hard work of reconciliation,” he said in a statement.

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said BC residents are mourning alongside the Secwépemc and all families impacted by residential schools.

“In responding to this situation, the province is taking our lead from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. We offer them our full support,” the ministry said in a statement.



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