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Discovery of Kamloops residential school graves resonates with Northern Manitoba survivors

In the two weeks since the discovery of the graves of 215 children who died, most of their deaths undocumented, at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia using ground-penetrating radar, Thompson has seen an outpouring of shock and
Stones representing 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered in an unmarked grave at t
Stones representing 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered in an unmarked grave at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May lie on a monument acknowledging the role bush planes played in the residential school system at Lions’ Park in Thompson during a Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak ceremony June 4.

In the two weeks since the discovery of the graves of 215 children who died, most of their deaths undocumented, at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia using ground-penetrating radar, Thompson has seen an outpouring of shock and grief and demands for action to uncover more unmarked burial sites and reckon with the ramifications of the assimilation experiment, which has many ripple effects 25 years after the last school closed.

In addition to a memorial held May 30 at Thompson City Hall, where more than 215 pairs of children’s shoes were laid out as a way of honouring the memories of the children whose graves were discovered in Kamloops, many of them far from their families, Thompson saw ceremonies hosted by Keewatin Tribal Council (KTC) on June 3 and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) the following day as well as statements regarding the discovery by city council members at their June 7 meeting,

Flower petals and tobacco were sprinkled into the water from the north bank of the Burntwood River during KTC’s ceremony as a way of remembering the 215 children, with Northern Manitobans impacted by the residential school system sharing how their experiences affected them.

“We are standing on the very ground where children were taken against their will, against their parents’ wills,” said Caroline Ouskun, who worked with residential school survivors for many years and is also one herself. “They were forced, they were taken away. The hurt still resonates. I left home when I was eight years old. I lost seven years of my life.”

People who weren’t students themselves were also impacted, said Gordon McGillivary of Split Lake, who grew up on Churchill and didn’t know he had brothers for the first few years of his life.

“I was told I had brothers who went away to school,” McGillivary said, recalling going to meet the train when his brothers came home from residential school and their being confused when heard him calling out the names his mother had told him. “They had been away to residential school and had not come home for about five years so they didn’t even know that I was born in that time. They didn’t even know they had a younger brother. It damaged our family, I can tell you that from my experience. We are still scarred today from what the residential school did  to us. It still hurts. I still feel pain, anger, ashamed.”

Coming to terms with the legacy of the residential school system requires not only admission of what was done to Indigenous families but also the purpose behind it as well as accountability for those who ran the system, said Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton June 3.

“I have not heard from one single person whether it’s a survivor or a descendant of a survivor that has not said we need action,” she said. “That action begins by exposing the truth, telling the truth that this is genocide, genocide against Indigenous people, state-sanctioned genocide organized and implemented by the state and the churches. These weren’t actually schools but prisons, detention camps, torture chambers. There can be no reconciliation if there is not truth. With that truth there must also be justice, justice for you, for your families, for your communities. That also means criminal investigations, that means holding people and institutions to account and that is something that we will pursue in Parliament."

That the residential school system qualifies as an act of genocide was reiterated by MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee during an online press conference June 9.

“These measures collectively meet the test of crimes against humanity,” said Settee, whose grandmother attended residential school. “There can be no reconciliation without their admission of that.”

What was discovered in Kamloops points to the need for more thorough investigations and searches at other residential school sites, said the grand chief, recalling when he was a teacher and had to develop his own unit on the residential school system for a high school history class because it wasn’t even part of the curriculum at the time.

“Every residential school has to have a forensic investigation,” said Settee. “This will be the beginning of moving forward by repatriating the bodies of our people.”

Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias said residential schools are just one facet of a society in which Indigenous people are far from equal.

“215 children killed, died, didn't go home,” he said. “If that isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is. It still continues through the penitentiaries, through the justice system. The system is set up in a way that we will fail.”

At Monday’s council meeting in Thompson, Mayor Colleen Smook and others addressed the discovery and what it means.

”This is not something that is going to go away,” the mayor said. “The north especially is hit hard. We have a lot of people that went to residential school and are residential school survivors and my thoughts are definitely with all of you.”

Coun. Andre Proulx said the discovery of the graves was confirmation of what people have been saying for years even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which estimated that at least 4,000 children who were sent away to residential schools did not make it home alive.

“We’ve always heard this story, this isn’t new to us…but now that they’ve actually found those and people are believing it and seeing it I think it will create a chain reaction.”

The Roman Catholic Church needs to do more to acknowledge the role it played in the system, along with other churches, said Coun. Jeff Fountain

“A big player here in the Catholic Church is still stuck, after all the crimes that that church has committed over the years, not having moved an inch, not one inch, taking responsibility for the crimes that organization did across the country, not only to Indigenous people but to children across the country and across the world. Shame on you, Catholic Church. Hopefully you’ll learn from this and bring some work forward on reconciliation of your own."

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholics, voiced sympathy for people affected by residential schools on Twitter June 6, but stopped short of offering an apology for the church’s role in the system and refrained from making commitments to help people affected.

“I join the Canadian bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking [sic] discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” reads the pope’s statement. “These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”

A statement issued by the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, which oversees around 50 Catholic churches in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario and operated seven residential schools, went further, offering an outright apology to families and people affected by residential schools and to cooperate with identifying additional victims of the residential school program.

“On behalf of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, I express my deep sorrow at the news of the 215 children found on the grounds of the previous Kamloops Residential School. This news has made fresh again the pain for all affected by the legacy of residential schools,” reads the letter, published by Archbishop Murray Chatlain. “There has been an outflowing of emotion: anger, dismay, grief, sadness. I have experienced all these emotions in myself as well. I want to express my deep apology and profound condolences to all the families and communities affected. We will do all we can to provide what information we have on our gravesites. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), our records were turned over to the TRC. We commit to help with identifying the children that passed at our own residential schools. The most important thing now is to pray and listen.”

- with files from the Flin Flon Reminder