Northerners grieve after 'devastating' discovery at former B.C. residential school

Northerners poured their grief online, and sounded off on Canada's past and present treatment of Indigenous people, after the remains of 215 stolen Indigenous children, some as young as three, were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Leaders call for accountability and justice for children who never came home

Yellowknifers placed shoes at a makeshift memorial outside a Yellowknife church. People across the North shared their grief publicly after learning about the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Eden Maury/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Northerners poured their grief online, and sounded off on Canada's past and present treatment of Indigenous peoples, as they took in the news that the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had detected the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Inuk artist Tanya Tagaq shared a painting on Instagram to sum up her feelings. 

"She is sick. Throwing up the graves. Throwing up the sickness," Tagaq wrote of her painted figure.

"The graves are unmarked because they are trying to hide what they did," Tagaq wrote, while calling for more accountability. "Their descendants need to know what they did."

'I was kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest, in broad daylight, right in front of my parents!' Nunavut elder Piita Irniq wrote on Facebook. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In a Facebook post, Elder Piita Irniq, former commissioner of Nunavut, recalled how, at age 11, as his family prepared to walk inland from their summer camp near Naujaat for their annual caribou hunt, he was taken to Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet.

"I was kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest, in broad daylight, right in front of my parents!" Irniq wrote. 

"Little did my parents or I know that this was the beginning of leaving behind my culture, language, Inuit spirituality, and the practice of Shamanism," he wrote.

"Many of us have spent our lives trying, in many different ways, to bring 'meaning' back into lives that were emptied of the ideas, beliefs and relationships that for thousands of years, brought meaning and purpose to Inuit."

'Systemic and deliberate extinction'

"I'm not going to pretend that this news hasn't affected every single cell in my own body," said Dene Nation Chief Norman Yakeleya on CBC North's The Trailbreaker

Dene Nation Chief Norman Yakeleya holds the residential schools file for the Assembly of First Nations and called the discovery 'devastating.' (Sidney Cohen/CBC News)

Yakelaya holds the residential schools file for the Assembly of First Nations and called the discovery "devastating."

"Young boys were turned into a number," he said, with the intent of "systemic and deliberate extinction."

He's calling for a similar investigation on residential school sites and segregated hospitals in Alberta, like Charles Camsell, where many Indigenous children and tuberculosis patients were sent, but some never came home.

Similar calls emerged in Alberta Monday

"How many more discoveries are we going to find?" he asked, adding that federal day schools must also be considered.

"Who's responsible for these deaths that are not known yet? Will there be charges, criminal charges laid? Who will be brought to justice and how?"

This map shows the location of residential schools identified by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit students were sent to these facilities from the1830s until the last school closed in 1996. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

Premiers 'devastated'

In the Northwest Territories legislature Monday, Premier Caroline Cochrane said many people who work in the assembly and the government have been "retraumatized" by the find. 

"This is not just a dark chapter in Canadian history," she said. "It is part of our present day as it continues to live on through the multigenerational trauma that has impacted Indigenous people for decades because of the physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse experienced by those torn away from their homes by the government of Canada and the Catholic Church."

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq. 'We stand together, unwavering in our cultures and languages, determined to heal,' he said. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

In a statement, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq called the discovery "devastating." 

He noted the legacy of "deep intergenerational trauma, rooted in attempted cultural genocide and assimilation."

"I send my love and support to the families of the victims, and to all survivors and those affected by residential schools," he said. "We stand together, unwavering in our cultures and languages, determined to heal."

Finding remains in the North

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken to residential school, and at least 4,100 children died, though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that number to be closer to 6,000.

In its report on unmarked burials, the TRC notes that 74 children died in residential schools in the Yukon, 15 in Nunavut and 252 in the N.W.T., though leaders in the Northwest Territories have disputed that figure as too low

The TRC also has a list of 203 missing children, where the name of the residential school has never been confirmed or identified. 

On Facebook, N.W.T. MLA for Great Slave, Katrina Nokleby, called for an investigation of residential school sites in the N.W.T. and to use the same technology used to measure thickness of ice roads to assess the grounds.

The North was also home to several federally-operated day schools, such as this one in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (CREDIT: NWT Archives/Jean Boulva Photograph Collection/N-2021-002: 0049)

'In shock and appalled'

Stacie Smith is a business owner, Yellowknife city councillor and a member of the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation. 

"As a mother, I am devastated. I am in shock and appalled," she told CBC. "Who will be held accountable?"

The City of Yellowknife announced Monday it would lower its flags to half mast for 215 hours. Several other northern communities took similar initiatives, including Fort Providence, which was home to the N.W.T.'s first residential school, and the Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay. 

Smith lauded the effort to mark the shocking news, but wondered what would happen next. 

"Racism is alive and well in the present day and until we can all sit at the table without hate in our hearts, those uncomfortable conversations will never prove fruitful for that brighter tomorrow."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

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.

In addition, the NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason. 

With files from Loren McGinnis and Sidney Cohen