Toronto-area communities mourn after remains of 215 children found at former B.C. residential school

Communities across the GTA are lowering flags and holding vigils Monday in remembrance of 215 children whose bodies were discovered at a former residential school in British Columbia.

Ontario legislature holds moment of silence as advocates call for further action

A memorial for the 215 children found buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School is pictured at Queens Park, in Toronto, on May 31, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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

Communities across the Greater Toronto Area are lowering flags, holding vigils and creating memorials in remembrance of 215 children whose bodies were discovered at a former residential school in British Columbia.

The cities of Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton have lowered flags on their municipal buildings, and a vigil was held in Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday. A makeshift memorial with a line of children's shoes—now a symbol of the lives cut short—has been set up at Queen's Park. 

"It's a pretty heavy thing happening right now," said Sol Mamakwa, the MPP for Kiiwetinoong, on Monday. "It's very hurtful. There's a lot of emotions across the country for Indigenous people, there's a lot of anger."

The Ontario legislature observed a moment of silence on Monday morning at the request of Mamakwa, who is a Kingfisher Lake band member. 

Other community organizations and local groups are following suit with gestures of remembrance and mourning. In Stoney Creek in Hamilton, a vigil started at 6 p.m. on Monday at 77 King St. W. Peel Regional Police announced that they will be lowering their flags to half mast to honour the children who died at the school, according to Chief Nishan Duraiappah.

Community organizers and advocates are now turning their focus toward next steps, including investigating other residential school sites for grave sites and addressing the long-term legacy of residential schools. 

On May 27, the remains of 215 children were found buried at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School in Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation territory. The First Nation said the remains were confirmed with the use of ground-penetrating radar.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at residential schools based on death records, but has said that the true total is likely much higher. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

WATCH | GTA cities mark the discovery of remains of 215 children at a former residential school in B.C.:

Torontonians honour the lives of 215 children found at former residential school in B.C.

2 years ago
Duration 2:46
With flags at half-mast, vigils and memorials, Torontonians are honouring the lives of 215 children whose remains were found last week in a preliminary survey of the grounds of a former residential school in B.C. As Farrah Merali explains, there are growing calls for government action beyond reconciliation.

Toronto vigil organizers call for change

Katherine Gandy, who is Secwépemc and Ojibwe, was one of the organizers of a vigil that was held at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday evening. She says both her grandparents and her aunt had attended the Kamloops Residential School. 

"I was feeling extreme loss and grief," she said. "I wanted to organize a vigil so that not only would Indigenous people partake, but also allies."

Gandy said children's shoes at the vigil represented "the walking life that they never continued to have." 

"It's intergenerational grief and loss and trauma, but there's also strength in culture, strength in language, strength in community, strength in nationhood, to be in unity to heal collectively and to see it through that those responsible are held accountable," she said, including the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic Church.

"The voices of those children are speaking and they are leading the way for change."

She organized the vigil together with Westwind Evening, a knowledge keeper and member of the Fishing Lake First Nation and Bear Clan, who is also a survivor of a residential school and the Sixties Scoop as a foster child. Westwind Evening's late mother, too, was a survivor of a residential school.

"In our culture, we need to bring our children home. The children never came home to their families, who loved and cherished them. They ended up in a grave," Evening said.

"For me, as a Bear Clan warrior, my work is to protect and heal the community."

Westwind Evening and Gandy both said their goal is to achieve Indigenous sovereignty over their own communities, especially to gain control over child welfare agencies that they say have continued the legacy of residential schools by separating Indigenous children from their parents. They plan to hold a follow-up rally on June 21, they said.

"The Indian Residential School never ended. It just became the child welfare system," Evening said.

"We want to end this."

Ontario legislature holds moment of silence

Meantime, Mamakwa has called on the Ontario and Canadian governments to work with First Nations to search every residential school site for graveyards. He also said that governments should institute an annual day of mourning.

"You have to listen to us," he added. "We need some type of healing initiative right now for the people who are in mourning."

WATCH | Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa speaks about the need for reconciliation:

Ontario MPP calls for more action after remains found at Kamloops residential school

2 years ago
Duration 1:21
Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, is calling for more action from both the Ontario and Canadian governments in response to the discovery of the bodies of 215 children on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Mamakwa said he believes that there are likely other residential school sites that have graveyards and that First Nations communities need the tools to investigate the sites. He said he attended a residential school in the 1980s, and that the legacy of the schools is still being felt today.

"It's a crime against humanity, period," he told CBC News.

Toronto flags to be lowered for 9 days

Toronto Mayor John Toronto said Sunday that the city's flags would be lowered for 215 hours, or around nine days, to represent the lives of each of the children lost. Members of Toronto's Indigenous communities and residents held a candlelight vigil at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday evening.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said flags in her city will be lowered for one hour for each child as well, and echoed calls for a national day of mourning. 

The Canadian flag at the Peace Tower in Ottawa was lowered to half-mast on Sunday after the discovery of the children's bodies. The Department of Canadian Heritage said flags at all federal buildings and establishments across Canada would be lowered until further notice.

Vigils and memorials were held in other cities and towns across the country during the weekend, including outside the Alberta legislature. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at 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