the senate — Kamloops Indian Residential School

Remains of Indigenous Children Found on Site--Tributes

June 1, 2021

Hon. Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Honourable senators, today we collectively remember and mourn the death of 215 Indigenous children discovered in a mass grave outside a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Colleagues, often in ceremony, elders will remind us that the children are not our possessions but rather precious gifts from the Creator. Our sacred duty is to love and care for them, protect them from harm and support them through the stages of their lives.

The truth is that for over a century, 150,000 Indigenous children were taken away from their families and forced to live at residential schools operated by churches and enabled by the Indian Act.

This deprived not only children of the loving embrace of their families, their language and their identity, it also deprived adults of the opportunity to fulfill their most sacred duty to their Creator — to raise their children.

Today, we acknowledge the pain and re-traumatization that the discovery of this mass grave has caused the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc people and other First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country. We also acknowledge that this is likely one of many mass burial sites that will be discovered in the future. We acknowledge that the children who died were likely terrified. If they were sick, they were probably suffering and alone. They passed from this earth without the comfort of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Honourable senators, we must also acknowledge the children who survived. Many of us have heard the devastating recollections of survivors who were made to dig graves for their classmates, brothers, sisters and cousins forced to grieve the loss of their family alone. The whispers of school violence, death and despair passed on through the generations.

We acknowledge that families were not allowed the dignity of notification and were left to wonder what happened to their children who didn’t return home. They were not allowed the peace of mind required to grieve and accept the loss of their child. The intergenerational grief and loss of Indigenous families remains one of the heaviest burdens of historic trauma.

June 1 is the beginning of National Indigenous History Month. It should be a time to celebrate culture, language resilience and resistance. Instead, we find ourselves reaching out to friends and family to check in on them, hoping their grief and despair does not swallow them whole.

The discovery of what remains of the children’s earthly bodies is a sharp reminder to never forget the children who suffered and those who died at residential schools, to be more mindful of how this trauma manifests in communities, to support community-based, culturally grounded historic trauma healing initiatives and to support the ceremonies that help us to move through this grief, loss and despair. It is a reminder that we all have a responsibility in the healing and reconciliation of our collective pain. Hiy hiy.

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)

Honourable senators, today I also rise to speak on the horrific tragedy of finding 215 children’s bodies who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. These were children, colleagues. Two hundred and fifteen precious lives cut far too short. All human lives have intrinsic value, and the finding of these 215 bodies devastates me. It devastates me that residential schools are a very real and very dark part of our country’s history, and it should devastate us all.

I will never truly understand the pain that families impacted by, and the survivors of, residential schools have gone through.

This discovery reminds us that our collective reckoning with the past is an ongoing process. Truth must not be sought once but persistently. To me, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s formal apology to residential school survivors in 2008 was a crucial first step in laying the groundwork for ongoing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Then, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report evidenced what Indigenous peoples already knew — that thousands of Indigenous children’s lives were lost through malnutrition, disease and abuse in Canada’s residential schools.

The number of children who died at Canadian residential schools could be as high as 6,000, but the quantification of these deaths does not make the forgotten graves in Kamloops any less tragic. The Kamloops finding is a tragedy that is troubling to all Canadians at this time, as it resurfaces pain for those who have been directly impacted by residential schools.

As we seek the truth of our past, we cannot let our hope for reconciliation fade. We must continue to face the pain of our collective history. We owe it to the families who have lost children through residential schools and to the school survivors to keep pursuing and working together to foster renewed hope for a better future.

On behalf of the opposition in the Senate, I wish to offer our condolences, thoughts and prayers to the Indigenous peoples, families and communities who are suffering and mourning. I join all colleagues in this chamber in a moment of silence to mourn the lives and the deaths of 215 children.

Let us take a moment to honour them, and may our gesture of respect offer some comfort in these difficult times. Thank you.

Hon. Dan Christmas

Honourable senators, I rise today with profound sorrow to address the unspeakable tragedy of the discovery last week of the graves of the young innocents who perished in the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

I speak on behalf of the Independent Senators Group, and I offer thanks to Senator Woo for the opportunity to do so. I assure you, this will not be easy for any of us. I speak not to incite anger or to point fingers in blame but to ask that we might turn from our past and acknowledge the tragedy of what we have done in our history and, through this, to encourage us all to confront the sobering realities of who we are and what we have been as a nation.

Consider the 215 children: 215 futures never realized, 215 souls whose lives could have changed their nations — and, indeed, Canada — had they been spared and allowed their rights and freedoms as equal and worthy human beings.

Instead, the public policy of this country, the Indian Act, enacted in 1876 by legislation from the Parliament in which we now serve, ensured that our country never gained benefit or value from these lives.

Today, Canada is a nation awash in a tidal wave of tears, and we must let them flow. Our people, my people and yes, your people — for that is what they are and what we are — are steeped in grief and sorrow. We mourn our lost babies, our lost angels, our lost culture, our lost freedoms, the disassociation from our lands and traditions and the way that we must endlessly struggle to convince Canada to understand, to appreciate and to embrace who we are and to what we continue to aspire.

We beseech you to understand that we need to work together to validate that, in this instance, evidence of this policy clearly cost lives — young, helpless, frightened lives. Consider that, colleagues. Think of them and remember, “There is no footprint too small to leave an imprint on this world.” Let us be their footprints. Let us be their voices.

Honourable colleagues, I urge us to act and to let the Prime Minister and Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller, know that we must immediately grant additional funding to the existing mental health supports in Indigenous communities. We need more than just a telephone helpline to contend with this tragedy. We need, at the very least, to have sharing circles offered online with mental health supports. These are absolute bare minimums.

It has been said that, “Tears are words that need to be written.” Let us, as senators, shed such tears. Let us write the words and enact whatever means that put an end to the horrific tragedy of the loss of life as a direct consequence of Canada’s past public policy.

I can think of at least 215 reasons to do that, 215 reasons to change and 215 reasons to stop, turn from our past and seek to change and to do better. The 215 souls and memories of these angels deserve no less than this.

Wela’lioq. Thank you.

Hon. Scott Tannas

Unspeakable — and yet we must.

The voices of 215 angels have joined a chorus urging Canadians to seek the truth and understand the monstrous tragedy that rolled on in our country for decades: Children taken from their homes and families, sent far away, many never to return, having died scared and alone, without their mothers and fathers to comfort them.

Canada will never be the place that we want it to be until we own this part of our history. We need to act upon reconciliation.

The heroes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, those who spoke their painful truth and those who bravely listened, have provided us with clear and measurable Calls to Action.

For many of us in Canada, today is day one of reconciliation action. Canadians from all walks of life, all creeds and colours, stand ready, with our hearts full, wanting to do something, wanting to act.

How do we act? Tonight, before I put my head down to sleep in the comfort and safety of my home in this country of wealth and promise, I am going to read the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am going to pick one of them, and dedicate my efforts toward the achievement of that goal. When it is achieved, I will choose another, and so on. This is how I, as one Canadian, intend to walk the path of action and honour. This is how I will honour the lost children of the Kamloops residential school and the many, many more angels whose voices I expect we will soon hear from. Thank you.

Hon. Jane Cordy

Honourable senators, I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am joining from you from Mi’gma’ki, the ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people.

Today, I add my voice to those who have already spoken about the tragic discovery last week of the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, who were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

For many of us, it seems unthinkable that such atrocities could have taken place, particularly toward some of our most vulnerable — our children. But for many First Nations, Métis and Inuit, this news has reopened a wound that has still not had the opportunity to heal. The trauma and suffering of these communities are more than just a dark chapter in our history. It is a lived and ongoing reality for Indigenous people.

Honourable senators, we must work harder to ensure that we address these harms through concrete and lasting actions. It is especially important for those of us who are non-Indigenous to play an active role in reconciliation. We must make space to listen to the voices of the First Nation, Métis and Inuit populations. But, honourable senators, listening is not enough.

We must acknowledge that the pain we felt when hearing the news of the 215 deaths of these innocent children who were taken and never returned home requires a response that goes beyond words. The work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided us with the guidance for our next steps. These actions will advance truth, healing and reconciliation more than any words possibly could.

Honourable senators, we must recognize and honour the lives of these 215 children and share in the collective grief surrounding the circumstances of their deaths. But we must also share the responsibility and commit to the work required for real reconciliation. I support the Indigenous leaders who have urged us to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, including searching every Indian residential school site to ensure that there are no more lost Indigenous people.

On behalf of the Progressive Senate Group, I offer our sincere condolences to the families and to the communities of the 215 children found in British Columbia, as well as to all Indigenous peoples whose lives have been impacted by residential schools. We see you, we hear you and you have our support.

Honourable senators, we can and we must do better. Thank you.