The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were found buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school.
TORONTO, ON – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday demanded that the flags of all federal buildings be hoisted halfway through to honor more than 200 children whose remains were found buried in what was once the largest Indigenous residential school of Canada – one of the institutions that detained abducted children from families across the country.
The Peace Tower flag on Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, was among those reduced to half-stick.
“To honor the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops Residential School and all the Indigenous children who never returned home, the survivors and their families, I requested that the Peace Tower and all federal buildings be half-masted. Trudeau tweeted.
Mayors from communities across Ontario, including Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga and Brampton, have also ordered that the flags be lowered to honor the children.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said the remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were confirmed last weekend using a radar penetrating the ground.
She described the find as “an unthinkable loss that was talked about but never documented at Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
From the 19th century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children had to attend publicly funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. Many have been beaten and insulted, and up to 6,000 are believed to have died.
The Canadian government apologized to Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual violence in schools was rampant. Many students remembered being beaten for speaking their mother tongue. They also lost contact with their parents and their customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited this legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of the drug and alcohol epidemic rates on reserves.
Plans are underway to call in forensic experts to identify and repatriate the remains of children found buried at the site.
The Kamloops School operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over the operations of the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation recorded at least 51 children who died in school between 1915 and 1963.
Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that while it is nothing new to find graves in old residential schools, it is still overwhelming to see the wounds in this chapter exposed.
Mississaugas Credit First Nation Chief R. Stacey LaForme wrote to Trudeau on Saturday asking the government to lower the flags and declare a national day of mourning.
“There is still a lot to do, but first and foremost, we need to do it to show love and respect to 215 children, all children and their families,” LaForme said in a statement. “It should be a moment the country will never forget.”
Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous opposition lawmaker who represents the Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong, called on the province and the Canadian government to work with all First Nations to search for remains in other abandoned residential schools.
“It is a big open secret that our children lie about old school property – an open secret Canadians can no longer look away from,” said Mamakwa. “In accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s plans for missing children, every school site must be excavated for the graves of our ancestors.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory said city flags will stay lowered for nine days – 215 hours – to represent every life.
“This sad story is shocking but not surprising to history students, I don’t think we know yet when these deaths occurred,” said Nelson Wiseman, professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“The Canada of yesteryear is not the Canada of today,” he said.