'The fault of Canada': Trudeau addresses Commons on discovery of remains at B.C. residential school

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is participating in a take-note debate in the House of Commons tonight on reports of the discovery of the remains of more than 200 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, Inuit children were placed in residential schools from 1870s to 1996

The flag at the Peace Tower in Ottawa flies at half-mast on May 30, 2021, in memory of 215 children whose bodies were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

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

It is Canada's fault that the remains of an estimated 215 Indigenous children were buried on the site of a one-time residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

Trudeau said Canadians can't close their eyes and pretend this didn't happen; they must acknowledge that the country failed in its duty to those children, their families and their communities.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a radar survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated that the remains of an estimated 215 children were on the site.

"Today, some of the children found in Kamloops, and who have yet to be found in other places across the country, would have been grandparents or great-grandparents. They would have been elders, knowledge keepers and community leaders," Trudeau told the House of Commons during a special "take-note debate" Tuesday night.

"They are not. And that is the fault of Canada."

Trudeau pledged the support of the federal government to help in preserving gravesites and uncovering potentially more unmarked burial grounds at other former residential schools. But he and his ministers stressed the need for Indigenous communities to decide for themselves how they want to proceed.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the residential school system is "a dark and painful part of the Canadian story."

"Tragically, new chapters are still being added to this sad history," he said. 

"As a parent, it's devastating to think that 215 children were buried by their school and lost for decades. As an MP and as leader of the Conservative Party, this tragic discovery is a stark reminder of our duty to heal the wounds from this horrific part of our history."

WATCH: Trudeau and O'Toole agree to take action on missing residential school children

Trudeau and O'Toole agree to move forward with action on missing residential school children

2 years ago
Duration 3:15
Featured VideoThe prime minister and the leader of the Official Opposition spoke in the House of Commons Tuesday evening during a take-note debate on the discovery of unmarked graves near the site of a former Kamloops residential school.

O'Toole said Trudeau should speed up efforts to follow through on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations dealing with missing children and burial information and called on the prime minister to deliver a plan by Canada Day. He pledged that his party would work with the government to complete the task.

O'Toole said all MPs in the House share a commitment to reconciliation but that commitment has to be followed up with action.

"What we have to do is make sure it's more than just important words, or lowering of the flag, or gestures that are important in healing, but more importantly, addressing the underlying unfairness [and] giving certainty to the families," he said.

NDP says schools were 'designed to perpetuate a genocide'

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he and many Canadians reacted with "horror at what had happened to these children."

"We as a nation saw people around the country continue to hold memorials to reflect on this horror, to reflect on what this means," Singh said.

"What it means very clearly is these residential schools were not schools; they were institutions designed to eradicate and eliminate Indigenous people. They were institutions that were designed to perpetuate a genocide."

Several NDP MPs pressed that point. Jenny Kwan, MP for Vancouver East, urged Pam Damoff, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of indigenous services, to adopt the word "genocide" in reference to residential schools.

"In order to move forward on closure and to honour the children and the lives that's been lost, we must also accept and acknowledge and admit that this was genocide," Kwan said. "Will the member call this a genocide and not a cultural genocide but genocide as defined by the UN convention on genocide?"

Nikki Ashton, MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba, echoed that sentiment.

"It is time for Canada and Canadians to accept the reality that this is genocide, genocide against Indigenous people," she said. 

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission opens by saying that what took place at residential schools "can be best described as 'cultural genocide.'" 

The report makes specific reference to cultural genocide as distinct from "physical genocide," which it describes as the "mass killing of the members of a targeted group" whereas cultural genocide is the "destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group."

'Settler culture' has to face truth: May

NDP MP Leah Gazan began her party's participation in the debate by saying that while Trudeau often talks about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, he's been slow to act on its recommendations. 

Green MP Elizabeth May told the Commons that Canadians must "face the truth. It is the settler culture of Canadians that have to face a truth that Indigenous culture Canadians have known for a long time."

"I must say how deeply we are shaken and how much we send our condolences affected by the tragic news that we heard last week," said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir has said the federal government should take immediate steps in response to the Kamloops finding.

"It's all good and well to the federal government to make gestures of goodwill and support regarding the tragedy," said Casimir. "There is an important ownership and accountability to both Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc and all communities and families that are affected. And that needs to happen and take place."

Children died in large numbers: report

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released 94 calls to action six years ago following a lengthy investigation into residential schools, made six recommendations regarding missing children and burial grounds.

It called on the federal government to work with churches, Indigenous communities and former residential school students "to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children."

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Monday that, given the evidence that children died in residential schools in large numbers, the federal government must follow up at other residential school sites and work toward "the righting of a huge wrong."

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools between the 1870s and 1996.

The TRC heard moving and tragic accounts of what happened to Indigenous children in residential schools before releasing its monumental 2015 report. Many of the children were physically and sexually abused at the schools.

At least 4,100 children died while attending these schools. Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, has said he believes the death count could be much higher because of the schools' poor burial records.


Peter Zimonjic

Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

with files from The Canadian Press