An unmarked burial ground at the former Kamloops, B.C. residential school set off a reckoning for Canadians about their country’s history and relations with Indigenous Peoples, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday.
The prime minister made the comments following a memorial gathering in Kamloops to mark one year since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced a war graves expert using ground-penetrating radar detected the remains of up to 215 children at the former school site.
“It was a difficult year for survivors and their families,” Trudeau said at an evening news conference. “It was a difficult year for Canadians as well. We have a long path ahead of us for reconciliation.”
Trudeau acknowledged his presence at the ceremony created tensions among some people, but others “told me they were glad I was here.”
He received a loud, stern reception during his attendance at a daylong memorial held at the nation’s PowWow Arbor and attended by hundreds of people.
“This was an opportunity to come together, to talk about moving forward in partnership,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau was followed by a large group of memorial attendees who chanted and pounded drums as he stopped in the stands, talking face-to-face with people and often exchanging hugs with others.
“We have so much more to do,” Trudeau was overheard saying to an elderly woman who he spoke with and hugged.
Others did not appear as friendly, chanting, “Canada is all Indian land,” and “We don’t need your Constitution.”
Trudeau told the crowd he hears their concerns.
“This is a moment for us to realize as great as Canada is as a country, we’ve made some terrible mistakes in the past,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon told the crowd the atrocities, the death, the loss and the silence of residential schools that Indigenous Peoples knew about for so long is now known by all.
“It’s unimaginable that a place of learning was so cruel. It’s inexcusable that people could commit these atrocities or that people could stand silent as they were committed,” she said.
One year ago, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that the graves were detected using ground-penetrating radar at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
They are believed to hold the remains of up to 215 children who died at the school, a finding that led to the discovery of hundreds of other similar sites across the country and triggered a national reckoning on Canada’s past and present relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Simon said while the unmarked graves of children found around residential schools in Canada have been called a discovery, for survivors it’s the confirmation of First Nations experiences and knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
“It shouldn’t have taken that long, but finally people know,” Simon said. “And knowing has transformed this community. People have made pilgrimages here to pay their respects, to say they’re sorry, to show their support.”
Simon, who is the first Indigenous person in Canada to hold the office of Governor General, said many members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc haven’t had time to grieve and she hoped that Monday’s event could contribute to their healing process.
“We mourn with you. We stand with you. We believe you,” she said.
Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief or Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir told the crowd at the memorial that she hopes the events over the past year will lead to reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples.
“Non-Indigenous are now wanting to know about the real hidden history of this country. That we know is a good thing. Those conversations, as hard as they are, are going to lead to steps that we all need to make towards our collective history.”
Casimir was part of the delegation to the Vatican where the Pope apologized last month for the role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
While she said she’s disappointed the Pope will not be coming to Kamloops during a scheduled visit in July, she’s pleased he’ll be meeting with other Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Pope Francis will make stops in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit during his visit.
Trudeau faced widespread criticism last September when he did not attend national reconciliation day ceremonies in Kamloops.
Casimir told the memorial attendees Trudeau apologized for not coming to Kamloops last September.
“He owned that,” she said. “He paid his regrets to our unmarked graves. I recognize that as a good start.”
Kamloops school survivor John Jules said Monday’s memorial was an inspiring event. Jules participated in a dance where he circled the powwow grounds with hundreds of people, young and old.
“It’s uplifting to have all our people together,” he said. “It brings healing for our people.”
—Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press