Manitoba NDP, Liberals call on province to search for residential school burial sites

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Manitoba’s NDP and Liberal parties are calling on the Pallister government to provide resources to search all former residential school grounds in the province for unmarked burial sites after the remains of 215 children were reported found in Kamloops, B.C.

On Thursday, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated the remains of children were found, some as young as three years old.

Manitoba’s official opposition party says that’s not an isolated incident.

“These are shameful parts of Manitoba’s legacy, and to ignore them or hide them only further exacerbates the shame,” said Ian Bushie, the NDP MLA for Keewatinook in question period on Monday.

“We’re looking for a real commitment here.”

Shoes line the steps of the Manitoba legislative building on Monday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Eileen Clarke, the minister of Indigenous and Northern Relations says in her time in the role, she’s worked with stakeholders to commemorate and identify cemetery lands associated with the Brandon Residential School.

“Our efforts will continue,” she said.

However, there are 13 former residential schools in Manitoba in addition to Brandon’s, and it’s not known how many children who attended those schools died.

“Every one of these sites must be searched so that we can know the truth. And without truth, there can be no reconciliation,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in question period.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont lent his voice to the call, saying finding, identifying and giving victims of residential schools a proper burial is “the least we can do to help put the minds of families and survivors at rest.”

Hollow, delayed, emotionless response: AMC

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs also blasted Brian Pallister’s provincial government for what the AMC calls a hollow, delayed and emotionless response to the discovery of the children’s remains in Kamloops on Thursday.

Soon after, governments across Canada posted condolences and lowered flags.

Yet, it took until Sunday “after an onslaught of social media blow back on the [Manitoba] provincial government’s silence” for Premier Pallister to send out a statement that contained four sentences, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said.

“I thought that it was very disrespectful that this provincial government would wait literally three days,” he said in an interview Monday.

AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas says people need to stop thinking of the residential school system as ancient history ‘when we are still uncovering graves.’ (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Dumas said his calling-out of Pallister is “brutally honest” and necessary.

“It’s unfortunate that you have a sitting government that waits until people get upset on social media before they actually have the decency to acknowledge the fact that a tragedy has occurred.”

Pallister’s statement said he was “deeply saddened” by the news of the “horrifying discovery” which is a reminder of the tragedy of the residential school system.

The statement also said flags at the legislative building and Memorial Park were being lowered and the building being lit in orange.

That colour has been adopted as a symbol to honour the thousands of students who attended residential schools across the country. It was started by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad who had her orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school in 1973.

First Nations were already staggered by wave after wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard, but the latest news has sent them reeling, Dumas said.

“There will be no polishing of words. There will be no tip toeing around this. It was and still is genocide of First Nations people. There is nothing else to call it,” he wrote. 

In response to Dumas’ remarks, Pallister’s office sent CBC an email comment that called the discovery in Kamloops “a tragic reminder of the atrocities that took place in the residential school system — and that they took place in our lifetime.”

The email also said there remains much work to do to address the terrible history of residential schools “and our government remains committed to that very important work.”

WATCH | Manitoba residential school survivors mourn after children’s remains discovered in Kamloops:

Residential school survivors are mourning the remains of 215 children found in B.C. on the site of a former residential school while sharing their own stories of abuse. 2:00

Flags lowered

As for the perceived delay in action, the province said it lowered the flags in Memorial Park at sunrise on Sunday morning after receiving a request to do so at midnight Saturday.

The Canadian and provincial flags at the entrance of the legislative grounds are typically only lowered when mandated by the federal government, the email stated. Deputy Premier Kelvin Goertzen met with a group of residential school survivors that gathered on the grounds on Sunday and gave approval to have them lowered at 12:30 p.m.

Graffiti on the boarded-up windows of the former Hudson’s Bay building in downtown Winnipeg acknowledges the number of children’s remains reported found at the former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

The remains were found after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation hired a specialist in ground-penetrating radar to carry out the work.

The First Nation has said it believes the deaths of the children are undocumented. Historical records only indicate 60 children died at the school.

“Families were left to grieve never knowing what happened and having to live with unanswered questions,” Dumas wrote.

“What they learned this last week was that their children were placed in a mass grave and were then forgotten about by the school, its administrators and the federal government.”  

City of Winnipeg responds

The City of Winnipeg and Mayor Brian Bowman took until Saturday to post a reaction to the news, announcing the lights on the Winnipeg sign at The Forks were being dimmed and flags at City Hall lowered to half mast for four days.

That is the length of the journey to the spirit world in some Indigenous cultures.

Over the weekend, shoes were gathered at various sites — Oodena Circle at The Forks, the steps of the Manitoba legislative building and the Selkirk Friendship Centre in Selkirk — to honour the children whose remains were found.

Dumas’ news release did not reference the time it took for the city to react to the news. CBC reached out to the AMC for response to that and was told Bowman was quick on social media to offer condolences.

As for the Pallister government, however, Dumas said the premier has been nowhere to be found.

“The premier had an opportunity to address this news with expediency. He could have reached out to my office and asked how he could help First Nations in Manitoba through this tragedy,” he said.

“This was not something to sit silent on, and frankly, the Pallister government’s silence is violence.”

“What a disservice to First Nations in Manitoba and across Canada by remaining silent while our Nations mourned. What a disservice to all allied Manitobans who look to governments and officials to speak when tragedies such as this makes us feel off kilter,” Dumas added.

“What a disservice to the youth in the province who should be taught the significance of what this news meant and shown leadership by speaking up when it counts. Sadly, what we all saw was this: a premier in hiding, popularity numbers dwindling, not bothering to speak. How truly sad.”

Support available

It is estimated more than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1996.

In his news release, Dumas said he wants people to stop thinking that what happened in the residential school system is history and to stop telling First Nations people “to get over it.”

“Our First Nations citizens are still living the effects of these colonization efforts as First Nation citizens are still discriminated against, encounter racism and are still ignored. It is not ancient history when we are still uncovering graves.”

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.

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