Today is Canada Day, and the nation reflects on some harsh truths. On May 27, 2021 the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of a mass grave with the remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops British Columbia at the site of what used to be the largest Indigenous residential school. Last week the remains of 751 bodies, mostly of children, were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School site in Saskatchewan, where the Cowessess First Nation is located. Yesterday, the Lower Kootenay Band said that it found the remains of 182 people near the grounds of the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School near Cranbrook in BC.
Between 1883 and 1996, over 150, 000 Indigenous children were forcibly sent to residential schools, many of which were operated by the Roman Catholic Church. A large number of Indigenous children never returned to their homes. In its report in 2012, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada said, “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”
To date the Catholic Church has not issued an apology. After the discovery of the burial site in Kamloops, Pope Francis had tweeted, “I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”
In his Canada Day message, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that “for some, Canada Day is not yet a day of celebration.”
“The horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada. We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past. And we must recognize that here in Canada there are still people who don’t feel safe walking the streets of their communities, who still don’t have the same opportunities as others, and who still face discrimination or systemic racism in their daily lives.
“While we can’t change the past, we must be resolute in confronting these truths in order to chart a new and better path forward. Together, we have a long way to go to make things right with Indigenous peoples. But if we all pledge to do the work – and if we lead with those core values of hard work, kindness, resilience, and respect – we can achieve reconciliation and build a better Canada for everyone.
Wearing orange to commemorate the children whose lives were lost as a result of mistreatment at residential schools, Canada’s Ambassador to the US Kirsten Hillman said, “Canada is a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who lived here first.”
“On this Canada Day, I encourage each of you to make a commitment to learn more about the Indigenous communities around you. Discover Indigenous culture. Educate yourself on the painful era of residential schools. Engage in meaningful discussions about our history and our past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report is an excellent place to start and serves as a testament to the courage of each and every survivor and family member who shared their story. We must unreservedly address historical and ongoing wrongs so we can build a better future.”
In 2015, PM Trudeau promised to implement all 94 of the TRC’s calls to action. So far, 13 have been implemented and 60 are in progress. There has been no progress yet on call to action #75 which instructs the federal government to work with “provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.”
With the recent discovery of these unmarked mass graves, and the work that remains to be done on the TRC’s calls to action, this is a very somber Canada Day indeed.
As we reflect on the tragedy of the innocent lives lost, we also remember the 86 Canadian children (among 329 passengers and crew) who lost their lives when Air India flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. 82 of the children were under the age of 13, their lives cut short by the worst terror attack in Canadian history.
Initially the Canadian government treated it as an Indian tragedy, with the then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney speaking to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to condole “India’s loss”. It was not until 2005 that Canada declared the anniversary of the bombing a national day of mourning. Observing the 20th anniversary of the bombing, Prime Minister Paul Martin acknowledged, “Make no mistake: The flight may have been Air India’s, it may have taken place off the coast of Ireland, but this is a Canadian tragedy.” In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an independent judicial inquiry into the Air India bombing led by former Supreme Court Justice John C. Major. His report – released on 17 June 2010 – concluded that a “cascading series of errors” by the Canadian government, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had allowed the terrorist attack to take place.
Poonam is a multi-media journalist, and Managing Editor of India America Today (IAT). She launched its print edition in 2019 with IAT's Founder and Editor, the late Tejinder Singh.