All three North Shore mayors have offered support to Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations as they call for the Federal Government to “urgently act” on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding missing Indigenous children and burial information.
More specifically, for the expert examination of all residential school sites in Canada for burial grounds and for the creation of a national registry to house the information.
The calls come after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared the tragic and heartbreaking news that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last week.
“For far too long we have not listened to survivors,” said Mayor Linda Buchanan of the City of North Vancouver. “This discovery, while painful, is not surprising given the testimony we have heard from Indigenous people. They have said many times that there were children whose bodies needed to come home. I hope now there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is true.”
The TRC was established in June 2008 to find the truth in the country’s dark and painful history of residential schools. Part of the commission’s 94 Calls to Action is to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.
Actions 71 to 76 state ways forward, including that all chief coroners and provincial statistics agencies provide records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential schools, that sufficient resources and funding be provided to develop a National Residential School Death Register, and that the federal government works with churches to inform families of children who died at the schools.
So far, 10 out of the 94 Calls to Action have been completed.
Squamish Nation reaffirmed its commitment to the remaining Calls this week and urged the federal government, all institutions, First Nations leaders, and the people of Canada to “demand the implementation and completion of this work.”
“This discovery is one that affects all of us, resurfacing generations of trauma that is felt in waves throughout our community,” Squamish Nation said in a statement.
“These children would have been Elders and members of our communities today, and we must honour them by joining forces to urgently call for Action 75 of the TRC, to identify all cemeteries, residential school sites, and unmarked graves at which Indigenous children have been buried."
The Kamloops Indian Residential School and North Vancouver's St. Paul's Indian Residential School were just two of 28 federally funded Christian schools in B.C. thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend, stripped of their culture and language, and subjected to brutal treatment as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society, which began in the late 1800s. It wasn't until 1984 that all residential schools in B.C. were closed down. The last one in Canada didn't close until 1996.
Total deaths 'may never be known'
The TRC says the exact number of children who died "may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high." Through its work with survivors and Aboriginal organizations on the Missing Children Project, the TRC has identified more than 4,100 children who died at schools across Canada so far.
Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief Leah George-Wilson said anyone who had an understanding of the history of Indian residential schools would not be surprised at the discovery in Kamloops.
“I've heard from other leaders and Elders that there has always been a question about who didn't come home from school or who got sent away,” she said.
George-Wilson highlighted that the work of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation was extremely important, as Indigenous children from all over B.C. attended the Kamloops residential school, reinforcing why a registry is so desperately needed.
“Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation is showing us a map of where these deceased children are and they have nowhere to put that information,” she said.
“Right now, there isn't any way for people to know where these lost children are. There needs to be an organization behind that. There needs to be a registry.”
North Shore mayors reaffirm commitment to TRC recommendations
In line with the local First Nations calls, Buchanan said as a city, “we must reaffirm our commitment to the TRC recommendations and we must call on the federal government to implement these recommendations in full and with urgency.
“Implementing the recommendations from the TRC report must be met with deep investments in services,” she said. “We must provide adequate and culturally-safe support to our Indigenous neighbours. This is essential in advancing reconciliation.”
At the June 7 city council meeting, a motion to build an Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Reconciliation framework was submitted by council as a whole, reaffirming the city's commitment to fighting discrimination and systemic racism. As part of the motion, Buchanan, on behalf of council, will write to the federal government asking for the full implementation of the TRC recommendations.
District of West Vancouver Mayor Mary-Ann Booth also supported the North Shore First Nations communities in their requests for federal assistance.
“Finding unmarked graves at residential schools is an important step in the reconciliation process,” she said. “Our Indigenous communities have spoken about the existence of unmarked graves of children at residential schools. Expert examinations just provide proof for the rest of us, but that is a powerful thing and it’s needed to compel the rest of us to see the truth, acknowledge what has been done, and understand the significant work still to be done to bring about change.”
District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little added that “it is time to get the full story on each of these facilities, including St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver.”
The First Nations Leadership Council, which includes the First Nations Summit, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and BC Assembly of First Nations, has also penned a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling for the establishment of a legal framework to govern the protection and investigation of the unmarked mass burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and future burial sites that they anticipate will be discovered.
“Despite the courageous statements from residential school survivors for generations about missing children to the TRC and other statement gathering processes, and the findings of Volume 4 of the TRC on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, Canada has yet to put in place a proper legal framework to address the location and protection of unmarked burial sites,” the council wrote.
Federal leaders say work is underway to implement the Actions being called for through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and $27 million in funding was committed to the work in the 2019 Budget.
"This funding is supporting the NCTR in establishing the registries for deaths, burials and cemeteries," Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said in a statement to mark the 6th anniversary of the TRC's Calls to Action on June 2.
She said the funding will also support Indigenous partners and communities in developing community plans, conducting research and gathering local knowledge, accessing professional archaeological investigation services to identify burial sites and to memorialize, commemorate and return their loved ones' remains home.
"Through our engagements over the last year and especially over the last number of days, we have heard that communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast are seeking to lead this important and challenging work," Bennett said. "We will be there with them."
George-Wilson said it was time the federal government “put the real work in.”
“We need to implement those Calls to Action,” she said. “If we're ever going to have reconciliation, then we need the truth. We need the recognition of what happened. And, we need a process to help us get to where we need to be.”
All three North Shore mayors said they had reached out to Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations to see how they could best support them moving forward.
For far too long colonial governments have tried to set the agenda for Indigenous peoples, said Buchanan.
“This must change,” she said. “I am committed to supporting their healing and fight for justice. Action must be taken on their time and on their terms."
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.