Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors in Canada are calling on officials to do a thorough investigation of every former residential school in the country after the remains of more than 200 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Leaders from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc community in the southern interior of British Columbia, where the school was located, said that there are far more questions than answers so far regarding the discovery.
“The federal government has to play a role in making sure that these families know what happened, these families know the truth, that these families can have closure and Canada can confront the reality of this genocide,” said New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh, noting that if this had happened anywhere else in the world, Canada would demand answers and an international investigation.
He called on the government to step up and investigate thoroughly, saying the community and the world want answers.
“We’re going to fight for justice for you,” Singh said to community members on Monday.
The Kamloops Indian Residential school was one of the largest in Canada and operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s. It was opened and run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in the late 1960s.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report detailing the devastating legacy of the country’s residential school system when tens of thousands of mostly indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools.
At least 130 schools were in operation across Canada between the late 19th century and 1996, many run by the Catholic church or the federal government.
The commission report determined that at least 4,000 children died of disease, neglect, accidents or abuse while at these schools.
Canada’s National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde said Indigenous survivors have been saying this for years and have not been believed.
“If this happened in Kamloops, it happened in all the residential schools,” Bellegarde said during a news conference in Ottawa on Monday. “And the sad part is that the survivors have known this, but nobody believed them. But here’s the evidence now, the genocide of our people is very real.”
Bellegarde said government officials have not yet acted on many of the “calls to action” in the commission report, including creating a death registry of everyone who went missing.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said that more investigation is needed.
“Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident,” he said during a news conference. “We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality, a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it.”
He said that he and his government “are committed to reconciliation. We are committed to truth.”
Some Canadians have said symbolic gestures are no longer enough.
“When we think about our children, being torn from us, by the state, sent to who knows where, to be told to be ‘good, White, people,’ it’s unimaginable to us today,” said John Horgan, British Columbia’s premier, in an address to the legislature on Monday. “Yet a very active part of who we are as Canadians.”