Governor General Mary Simon is hugged at a commemorative event marking the first anniversary of the discovery of unmarked Native American children’s graves at the Tk’emlups Pow Wow Arbor in Kamloops, BC, on May 23.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Governor General Mary Simon delivered a eulogy for the missing children of the Kamloops Indian Residential School on Monday, as the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Nation gathered to mark the end of a year-long period of mourning.

“Today we make ourselves heard throughout the country. Although it is difficult, we tell Canadians and the world of our wounds and our pain,” said Ms. Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General.

In May 2021, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc announced that some 200 unmarked and previously undocumented children’s graves had been found on the grounds of the school, which was once Canada’s largest residential school before it closed in 1969.

The Governor General, who is Inuk, toured the school and the grounds where the remains were identified before speaking. “In this residential school and others like it across the country, churches and governments eradicated indigenous languages ​​and identity through corrupt policies. They took our stories,” he said. “It is unimaginable that a place of learning would be so cruel. It is inexcusable that people can commit these atrocities, or that people can remain silent while they are being committed.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was expected to join the memorial event later that day.

Mr. Trudeau traveled to Kamloops last October to personally apologize to the community for spending National Truth and Reconciliation Day on a family holiday. The national day was established in response to revelations at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and he had been invited to spend the day visiting the site where the graves were identified.

During his October visit, the prime minister was asked to provide government funding for a healing center.

For the Tk̓emlúps people, the day-long ceremony on Monday marks the end of the traditional mourning period and formally begins a time of healing.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told the meeting that the Catholic Church still has work to do to make comprehensive and significant repairs for its role in running the school, and asked Pope Francis to come to British Columbia during his upcoming visit to Canada.

But, he said, the findings have created a greater understanding of Canadian history. “The unmarked graves brought the truth to the world, and the world stood in solidarity with us,” she said.

That healing process includes an imminent decision on the exhumation of the remains. The community is considering whether to proceed with an archaeological excavation of the suspected graves. Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist who carried out the study using ground-penetrating radar, has said that only a forensic investigation with excavation could confirm the presence of human remains.

Ku̓kpi7 Casimir said his nation is working with a legal team and advisors within the community and other affected nations to determine next steps.

“Today, answers are still needed. More investigations are required,” she said.

As he spoke at the outdoor Pow Wow Arbor, an eagle flew overhead. She stopped to acknowledge his presence and said that the eagles will carry the prayers offered on Monday.

Jeanette Jules, who helped lead the cultural response to Le EsTCwicwe̓y̓, the Tk̓emlúps name for the disappeared, said morning prayer for the children who did not return home, but also for the survivors who are still deeply traumatized by their experiences. .

“Their spirits need to rest,” he said. “Their families need to come and gather them and bring them home and one day, all of that will come to be.”

Nikki Fraser, councilor for Tk̓emlúps, said in an interview that her community has welcomed thousands of people who have come to commemorate Le Escwicwe̓y̓ over the past year, even as its own members have taken issue with the news. “It brought me a lot of trauma,” she said, but she added, “It’s a sacred responsibility, not a burden.”

Indigenous children from across BC and other provinces were sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had been open for almost 80 years, under a government policy that sought to assimilate indigenous cultures. The Tk̓emlúps cannot make the decision about what will happen to the remains without consulting with that broader indigenous community, Ms. Fraser noted.

She said there may be some who want to bring their ancestors home. Exhumation, however, would be a controversial option.

“That’s going to be heavy, if it happens,” he said. “Culturally, your resting place is a sacred place. We would never step on you. Dig it up, that’s so strange to us.”

The discovery made international headlines, providing scientific confirmation of what many survivors of Canada’s residential school system have argued for decades: that in addition to the systemic abuse and violence suffered by the children who attended, thousands never returned home.

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report on the history and legacy of residential schools, declaring the government-funded, church-run school system cultural genocide. The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation has documented 4,117 deaths in residential schools, where indigenous children were abused, neglected, malnourished and exposed to disease, and estimates there are thousands more.

But the announcement of the Tk̓emlúps last year sparked a public acknowledgment of Canada’s history in a way that previous devastating finds did not. Pope Francis has now apologized for the conduct of members of the Catholic church who ran the Kamloops residential school and many of Canada’s residential schools, and will travel to Canada in July on a pilgrimage of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. In addition, Canada has established a National Truth and Reconciliation Day to honor lost children and survivors of residential schools.

The Kamloops find prompted other indigenous communities across the country to investigate other residential schools. Since last May, the federal government has awarded $78.3 million to 70 indigenous groups and communities to fund a variety of fieldwork, research and memorial projects. Approximately 40 communities have received money for ground searches and nine have announced preliminary findings.

Perhaps the most elaborate search is taking place at Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ontario. The community is purchasing ground-penetrating radar equipment, training local staff to conduct searches, conducting oral and documentary investigations, and appointing three individuals to oversee a police task force that will investigate the deaths at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. The community search site covers 240 hectares.

The approach is to treat the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School as a crime scene and investigate it using local resources and expertise as much as possible.

The Tk̓emlúps are inviting other indigenous communities to come to Kamloops to participate in the community’s next steps. “This is something that has not happened in history here in Canada. There is no set of guidelines, there are no checklists,” Ku̓kpi7 Casimer noted.

With a report by Patrick White.

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