When Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced a year ago that the unmarked graves of about 200 children had been discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, it wasn’t the first time Canadians had heard about horrors associated with the institutions designed to separate Indigenous children from their families and their culture.
More than a century earlier, Dr. P.H. Bryce, a medical officer with the federal government, released a report about unhealthy conditions and high death rates in the facilities. The news ran on the front page of Ottawa’s daily newspaper.
For a time, people were outraged, says Jennifer King of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which shares Bryce’s story on its website. Then it left the public consciousness.
“I think that’s something that Canadians would like to believe, that we just didn’t know any better,” King says. “Unfortunately, that’s not the truth. People did know, and people simply chose not to act.”
Instead, the Canadian government would go on to make the facilities mandatory, tearing apart families and putting children into institutions where abuse and neglect were rampant. Many would never make it home. It’s estimated more than 6,000 children died in the institutions, although the true number is unlikely to ever be fully known because records were destroyed.
A century later, Canada again finds itself in a place with an opportunity to right the wrongs committed against Indigenous children and ensure they never happen again, King says. Canadians can no longer feign ignorance about the harms against Indigenous children after the discovery last year in Kamloops.
“People do know that these things are happening. We do have solutions. It’s really a matter of getting our government, no matter who’s sitting there, to implement those solutions,” King says. “We need those voices across the broad spectrum of people in Canada to say that this is unacceptable and we want something different.”
The discovery created “a moment,” Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general David Lametti told The Tyee this week after a trip to meet with Indigenous leaders in B.C. It brought a groundswell of support and an opportunity for change, as Canadians displayed their grief with memorials of tiny shoes. The federal government’s role is a supporting one, Lametti says, with First Nations leading the response.
In the days and weeks that followed the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement, Indigenous communities asked for time to process the news. Then they wanted action. Things like implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action, correcting the underfunding of services for Indigenous children and co-operation in searching for the lost loved ones who never made it home from residential schools.
One year later, what has been accomplished?
Help searching residential school grounds
In the month that followed the Kamloops announcement, other First Nations collectively announced more than 1,000 more potential gravesites found near former residential schools, including 751 near Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, 182 at the Ktunaxa Nation in southeast B.C. and 104 at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southern Manitoba.
Roughly 500 more have been discovered at a half dozen former residential schools since. Last week, Saddle Lake Cree Nation northeast of Edmonton announced that human remains found since 2004 are believed to be connected to more than 200 students shown by Catholic Church records to have died at a nearby residential school.
Last week, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced it would begin a new search and is considering an archaeological dig at the site.
As the revelations continue, it is both traumatizing and healing for Indigenous communities, says BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee, who calls the findings “a wake-up call.”
“I know for Indigenous people, we always knew about it. We always knew about the trauma and we always knew that there were children out there that were unaccounted for,” he says. “I’ve said that one of the first things that’s going to need to happen is finding and searching some of these residential schools.”
In August, the Canadian government took a concrete step in making that happen, announcing $321 million in funding for programs to support Indigenous communities to search the grounds of the institutions and to “heal from the ongoing impacts of residential schools.”
Learning what happened to lost loved ones is a fundamental right for all First Nations, says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
But key to that is releasing residential school records, something that governments and churches have been slow to do, he says.
“There’s been little progress made in securing those records, which are vital to engaging in a process which will identify the individuals and ultimately bring them home,” he says. “Without question, there’s a deliberate reluctance on the part of those parties to release the records. So that’s proved to be very frustrating.”
In the case of Kamloops, one of the largest facilities of its kind in Canada, children were brought from hundreds of kilometres away. Having documentation would help trace their path, Phillip says.
But while the Canadian government announced earlier this year it would share documents with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, he says he’s not aware of that happening.
“I’m not hearing that from the communities themselves,” Phillip says.
The CBC recently reported that more than 200 boxes of records were discovered last year improperly stored in storage lockers in Vancouver and Yellowknife. They are currently being reviewed to determine how much of their contents relate to residential schools, according to Canada’s department of Crown-Indigenous relations.
In addition to government-held records, it’s believed that documents are also held by individual churches and rumoured to lie deep in the Vatican archives. But despite a papal apology to residential school survivors in Rome last month, those records have not materialized.
“It’s been heartbreaking to encounter such resistance on the part of the Vatican, government and churches to deal with this historically tragic issue in a timely basis,” Phillip says. “It’s delay, deny, distract.”
Last month’s apology is a step in the right direction, Teegee says, but he adds that Pope Francis’s plans to visit Canada this summer miss the mark.
“There has been, I would say, some pretty positive movements with the Pope, the church and also from governments,” he says. However, the Pope’s trip will bypass B.C., creating “a missed opportunity” to visit former residential schools in places like Kamloops, Williams Lake and Fraser Lake.
Phillip calls it an “egregious snub” to the formal request made by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir that the Pope visit the unmarked graves in Kamloops.
“The Kamloops Indian Residential School site represents the epicentre of the whole engagement and continuing search for unmarked graves at resident school sites across the country,” Phillip said, adding that he finds it “absolutely disingenuous” that Pope Francis would apologize to survivors at the Vatican but decline to visit in person.
Implementing TRC calls to action
A papal apology is among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, which called on the head of the Catholic Church to deliver the apology in Canada within a year of the report’s 2015 release.
Many other calls to action haven’t come to fruition at all.
In the weeks following the discovery in Kamloops, the federal government implemented three TRC calls to action, bringing the total to 11. But since then, there has been little movement, says Eva Jewell, research director at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Yellowhead Institute.
She says the federal government’s announcement last June that 80 per cent of the calls to action under its jurisdiction were “completed or well underway” was disingenuous.
“That’s laughable,” Jewell says. “It’s just not at all truthful.”
The Yellowhead Institute tracks national progress on the TRC recommendations, issuing annual reports every December. Not all calls to action are created equal, Jewell points out, and last year the analysis began breaking them down into those that are merely “symbolic” versus those that are “structural” and could bring meaningful change to First Nations.
“What we’ve seen increasingly is the focus on symbols, particularly after Kamloops,” Jewell says. “It seemed like a very knee-jerk reaction to the discovery and to the revelations.”
Within a month of the Kamloops discovery, the government addressed three calls to action by announcing it would appoint an Indigenous language commissioner, declaring Sept. 30 a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and amending the citizenship oath to recognize Indigenous Peoples.
In April, it announced plans for a monument to survivors and victims of residential schools in the nation’s capital, potentially ticking another call to action from the list.
While Jewell acknowledges that symbolic gestures keep the issue “in the public psyche,” she said the calls to action that would bring the most immediate and impactful change to the lives of Indigenous people are those requiring the government to monitor and report progress. Measuring results would reveal where shortfalls exist, she says.
She identifies four — relating to child welfare, education, health and justice — that could bring the most significant change to Indigenous lives by requiring the government to publish annual reports.
Generally speaking, Jewell says, the TRC recommendations are listed by priority, with the first 42 being the most important, but also where “the least movement has happened.”
“The first 42 deal with the ongoing legacy of the structures of colonial violence,” she says. “We should be paying attention to those first 42.”
While the Yellowhead Institute recognized three of those as completed in its most recent report, CBC’s Beyond 94, an accounting of TRC recommendations with a methodology Jewell describes as “very generous,” classifies most as “in progress,” with projects either proposed or underway.
Lametti says that the federal government is working on “a number” of the calls to action, including those related to residential schools. “A great deal of good faith and a number of different positive steps” have taken place in the past year, he says.
An important call to action — and one Lametti says “occasionally goes unnoticed” — is number 43, which calls on governments to fully adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation.
The House of Commons gave royal ascent to Bill C-15 last June, requiring the federal government to “take all measures necessary” to bring laws into alignment with the United Nations declaration. Lametti says he is now working on recommendation 44, a national action plan to make it a reality.
“I don’t think there’s, frankly, anything more important than that in the TRC calls to action, because that will condition how we see Canada as a country moving forward,” Lametti says. “I would put to you that, from a justice perspective, that may be the single most important thing that I’m working on.”
While the Yellowhead Institute’s 2021 report recognizes Bill C-15 as an important step, it says Canada is still a long way from fully implementing the declaration. CBC’s Beyond 94 classifies calls 43 and 44 as “in progress.”
But perhaps most important — and most timely — are the TRC’s first five calls to action. They deal directly with child welfare, which Jewell calls “very real, ongoing issues.”
“We’re in this entire situation because of the removal of children,” Jewell says. “Because of child welfare, essentially, or the claim that Indigenous people don't know how to raise their own children.”
The fight for equitable Indigenous child welfare
The discrimination against Indigenous children didn’t end with the closure of the last residential school in 1996, according to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that came 20 years later.
The 2016 decision came nearly a decade after the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed the human rights complaint against the federal government. It found that Canada discriminated against Indigenous children by underfunding child welfare on reserves and in the Yukon, and failed to properly implement Jordan’s Principle. Jordan’s Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Norway Cree House Nation in Manitoba who died in hospital while the provincial and federal governments disputed who should pay for his in-home care. It says whichever government receives the medical bill for a First Nations’ child should pay for it, determining responsibility for the cost later.
Canada was ordered to compensate affected First Nations children, parents and grandparents $40,000 each.
“Canada has lost at every turn with this case,” says Jennifer King, reconciliation and policy co-ordinator with First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
In September, the federal court dismissed Canada’s appeal of the compensation order. A month later, the government filed a last-minute appeal of that decision, but then paused the appeal, saying it would work with the parties to find a solution.
On Dec. 31, Canada entered into an agreement-in-principle to end discrimination against Indigenous children and enact measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A final agreement is expected by the end of this year. If it doesn’t materialize, the government could restart the appeal process anytime, King says.
If the deal goes ahead, the federal government has promised $40 billion to address discrimination in child welfare, half of it going to compensate those harmed by the system and the remaining half to fix the disparities.
“A huge part of this is that public awakening,” King adds. “We need the public to continue looking and watching and asking these questions, if this final agreement is actually going to do what it needs to do, which is not only end the discrimination but prevent it from happening again.”
Lametti says work on the final agreement is “moving forward” under Canada’s department of Crown-Indigenous relations.
He adds that plans to appoint a special interlocutor to work with First Nations, governments and communities to address next steps for unmarked burials at residential schools — something announced last August along with funding for searches — is moving ahead, with discussions on a suitable candidate taking place last week during his meetings in Sto:lo territory.
“It’s important for me to get to these kinds of trust-building events where people feel comfortable sharing their stories with me, in order that I can be a positive part of the process moving forward,” he says. He calls last year’s tragic discovery an opportunity to address our colonial history and strip away injustice “piece by piece.”
“This is a moment, and I think the discovery of these unmarked graves has given that impetus and we need to seize that moment,” he says.