N.B. schools, students confront discovery of remains at former B.C. residential school
'We have to try, we have to be uncomfortable,' says Sarah Francis of Anglophone West School District
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Sarah Francis is filled with emotion as she describes the toll taken by the news that the remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
"Our children are hurting," said the member of Neqotkuk First Nation, also known as Tobique, and the First Nations education co-ordinator at the Anglophone West School District.
More than 600 people, many from a number of schools, tuned in Monday to a Facebook Live held to talk about the Kamloops discovery reported last week.
Students in the district were encouraged to wear an orange shirt in solidarity with Indigenous communities experiencing structural violence.
Staff and students are invited to wear orange shirts tomorrow to honour the 215 children found buried at the Kamloops Residential School.—@ASD_West
"I started to panic a little bit and I thought maybe, we shouldn't have done this, maybe it was too soon," Francis said at the beginning of the event. "I just didn't know. But I knew that we had to do something. I knew that we had to have this conversation."
In an email to CBC News, the district said staff and students wanted "to acknowledge and honour the buried children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School."
"The orange shirt, which symbolizes loss and healing, renews awareness of the residential school history in a peaceful way."
Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. said last Thursday that preliminary findings were from a survey by a "specialist in ground-penetrating radar" at the grounds of the former school, which closed in 1978.
Onus of action and education
"You want to know why we have a hard time surviving and living and preserving our cultures," Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay asked during the online event hosted in New Brunswick. "It's always been about the land and the land was stolen."
"There was a direct genocide, this 215 here, that was because of genocide."
He and other speakers emphasized that the calls to action in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission must be heeded.
"It is about responsibility, not about guilt," Tremblay said.
Francis spoke of a duty of non-Indigenous people to educate themselves on the injustices faced by Indigenous communities.
"We need Indigenous voices to be lifted," she said. "We need you to stand up against racism and discrimination and oppression against our people. Stand up for us. Use your voice. Sometimes your voice is more powerful than ours, especially in a room of non-Indigenous people."
She stressed the importance of being mindful when approaching people in communities based on the generational trauma that some may carry with them.
"Do the work, educate yourself first. It's our responsibility, all of us, to do that. It's not the responsibility of our elders and our knowledge keepers in our language."
The future of Indigenous children
Chief Allan Polchies of St. Mary's First Nation said he found the news from Kamloops heart-wrenching.
"It's very sad to know that we had a government that supported those actions. Very sad to know that Indigenous children didn't have playgrounds. They had graveyards."
Both Tremblay and Polchies held ceremonies to mourn and honour the lives lost.
"To stand in front of 150 kids, kids from my community that live here, was an honour to stand in front of them and to know that, those were half the kids that were found out west," Polchies said of the ceremony at St, Mary's.
"But as a leader and a voice for my people and my young people, I will ensure that I will do anything in my capacity that this will never happen again."
WATCH: Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin says she supports a bill that would establish a statutory holiday Sept. 30 to commemorate the victims and survivors of Indigenous residential schools.
Addressing difficult subjects with children
Tremblay acknowledged that the subject matter would be difficult for younger children to understand and to deal with emotionally.
"I want to tell those young viewers, kindergarten, Grade 5 and up that you are lucky.
"You are very blessed to go home. You get to sit down with your parents, grandparents and and their siblings, and you can speak your language. We weren't allowed."
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419