Letter to the community regarding the Kamloops residential school burial site

The recent news that a mass burial site containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children was revealed at a residential school site in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc deeply saddened me and has shocked and saddened university communities and the nation.

The loss of 215 childrens’ lives must be acknowledged and grieved. These children—some as young as three years old—were taken from their families and placed in the care of the residential school system only to die there alone, without parents or kin. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has worked tirelessly to bring this dark chapter of Canadian history to light, and survivors of the residential school system have bravely shared their experiences, detailing the systemic abuse, malnourishment and indoctrination that took place over the hundred plus years that the schools operated. 

It is estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended Indian residential schools. Sadly, conservative estimates of the number of children who died while attending these schools is placed at more than 4,100.

As a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta with deep ties to First Nations and Métis families across this land we now call Canada, this news hits close to home. It is hard to imagine the death of even one of these children, let alone the number we have recently learned. This news is made all the more difficult by the fact that community members had long known of, and shared, this sad information. Similar reports have emerged across the country, with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities sharing stories of their own losses. 

In its summary report, issued in 2015, the TRC made far-ranging Calls to Action to acknowledge the lives lost and the courage of survivors. The commission acknowledged that the number of deaths in residential schools is likely significantly higher than what is officially known and issued Calls to Action 71-76, asking the federal government to accurately detail the number of children who died, to establish a National Residential School Student Death Register and to locate the bodies of children who died so that they can be properly memorialized.  

The Honourable Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, noted that this work is critical, saying, “It’s not just a part of who we are as survivors – it’s a part of who we are as a nation.”

This tragic story is a reminder of the significance and urgency of the work that we undertake as individuals, as researchers and as universities to not only acknowledge this dark stain on Canada’s history but to recognize that this history unfolds daily in current living. The individual and communal harm that occurred in these schools affects Indigenous families and communities today through direct and intergenerational trauma. 

Universities across Canada are working to address the historical and contemporary legacy of the residential school system and colonial harms more generally, by taking up the Calls to Action issued by the TRC. Universities must be committed to mobilizing the truth about the Indian Residential Schools realities. As the TRC directs us, “Without truth, there can be no reconciliation.”

What can individuals and communities do to remember these children and other lives lost in the residential school system?

Remember these children and their families in all of the ways that you, as an individual, remember —perhaps it is through prayer, perhaps by lighting a candle, perhaps by smudging. Honour these and the other lives lost in the residential school system in a way that makes sense to you.

If you have not familiarized yourself with it already, then I strongly encourage you to read the TRC report and Calls to Action and make them a priority as you engage in your teaching, learning and research endeavors. 

The recent news also means deeply considering what it means when you, and the institutions to which you belong, acknowledge territory. The acknowledgement of territory carries a responsibility—a responsibility, for example, of remembering the lives that these children, and so many others, lost. These small steps are part of the crucial journey that Canadians are all on towards improving understanding of First Nations, Métis and Inuit historical, and lived, experiences. 

Dr. Florence Glanfield
Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming and Research)

For those needing support: 

Indian Residential School Survivors 24 hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419 if you require further emotional support or assistance.

Additional Health Support Information 

Emotional, cultural and professional support services are also available to Survivors and their families through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program. Services can be accessed on an individual, family or group basis.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador: 1-866-414-8111

Quebec: 1-877-583-2965

Ontario: 1-888-301-6426

Manitoba: 1-866-818-3505

Saskatchewan: 1-866-250-1529

Alberta: 1-888-495-6588

British Columbia: 1-877-477-0775

Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut: 1-800-464-8106

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