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EDITORIAL: Action needed to address residential school legacy

The discovery of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has disturbed and shocked many Canadians.

The discovery of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has disturbed and shocked many Canadians.

But as communities, provinces and the country pledge to search their own dark pasts when it comes to residential schools, it’s likely more will be found.

For Indigenous people, it’s another stark reminder of Canada’s troubled relationship with its First Nations, who are largely kept out of mind, out of sight.

Words have been spoken, promises made and flags lowered to half-mast, but actions are needed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report in 2015 and outlined 94 calls to action to reconcile centuries of pain.

The commission painstakingly and exhaustively compiled historical evidence of what took place at residential schools, acknowledging few details were known on the number of Indigenous children who died in the school system. One of the six volumes was devoted to “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials."

The report gained attention at the time, but few of the calls to action have been completed.

Scott Hamilton, an anthropologist at Lakehead University, wrote in his 2015 essay for the commission “Where are the Children buried?” a way of addressing the residential school legacy is to learn the fate of the children who never returned home.

“Most of these children died far from home, and often without their families being adequately informed of the circumstances of death or the place of burial,” he wrote, noting the impact the residential school system continues to have on Indigenous people.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has confirmed more than 4,100 children died attending residential schools, including more than 800 in Alberta.

The NCTR’s executive director, Stephanie Scott, has said it’s only the start in “recognizing the extent of horrific loss of precious lives caused by residential schools in Canada.”

She, like many in the Indigenous community, have called for immediate action.

The Alberta Ministry of Indigenous Relations announced Monday (May 31) that funding would be provided to find unmarked graves at former Indigenous schools.

The province stopped short of announcing the amount of funding, when it would come or how it would be rolled out, but said it would be forthcoming.

Goodwill and supportive words are important, but actions, ownership and accountability are necessary.

There were at least 25 such schools in Alberta – including one in Morley that closed in 1969 – and more than 130 in Canada.

From the first school opening in 1831 in Brantford, Ont. to the last one closing in 1996 in Punnich, Sask., residential schools were a reality for generations of Indigenous people. The federal government became more involved in the 1880s and it’s estimated more than 150,000 children attended the schools.

The list of suffering and indignities by Indigenous peoples is near endless.

A national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the acknowledgement of a lack of clean drinking water in many First Nations communities have seen few measures achieved.

Last year saw protests in Wet’suwet’en Territory in British Columbia against the Coastal GasLink pipeline followed by solidarity protests across Canada, including the Tyendinaga Mohawk blocking CNR rail lines between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island on old growth logging, the rights of Mi’kmaq harvesters in Nova Scotia and the McKenzie Meadows development site in southwestern Ontario are all ongoing.

They’ve been met with court injunctions and arrests.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples was adopted in 2007 – with only Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States voting against. It wasn’t until 2016 when Canada accepted the declaration.

Now, with another chance for Canada to step forward and address a wrong, the minimum needed is to listen to Indigenous people and work to find those who were lost.

The survivors’ stories have long been available. The legacy of residential schools is clear. The attempts to destroy an Indigenous culture a shameful moment.

This is another chance for a country to address its past or it could be another example of a faltering footnote to look back on. But it’s not only governments who need to act, but its citizens. The goal of truth and reconciliation is meant for all.

While people change their Facebook profiles to orange and speak of a need for action, it’s not what’s being promised now that’s important, but the work that follows.

The efforts will be hard, understanding the complexity arduous and the discussions difficult.

Indigenous people in Canada have heard promises before.

Action is required.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted at 1-800-721-0066. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419. The First Nations Health Authority is at