Sacred fire, car procession in Winnipeg commemorate 215 children buried at B.C. residential school site

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Dozens flocked to the Manitoba Legislature grounds Wednesday to mark the extinguishing of a sacred fire burning in memory of 215 First Nations children, whose remains are believed to be buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, near Kamloops, B.C., announced last week that ground-penetrating radar discovered an unmarked burial site on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The remains of 215 children — some believed to be as young as three years old — were found.

A sacred fire was lit outside the Manitoba Legislature for those children and their families. The ceremony came to an end Wednesday, after the fire burned for four days.

“It was quite a triggering event in many ways,” said Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who participated in the closing ceremony.

“Many of the people here today are residential school survivors and it’s an acknowledgment that we all need to pull together… to help us bring attention to the issue and help us on the healing journey.”

Children’s shoes and some stuffed animals were placed on steps in front of the Manitoba Legislature to honour the children who did not make it home from the residential school near Kamloops, B.C. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Masked attendees at Wednesday afternoon’s ceremony joined in prayer, honour songs for the 215 children and residential school survivors, jingle dress dancing, gift giving and a feast.

Children’s shoes and some stuffed animals were placed on the steps in front of the legislature days ago in honour of the children who never returned home from the Kamloops residential school. On Wednesday, that installation was draped in orange cloth — a colour associated with remembrance for residential school victims — and closed.

Meanwhile, a car procession from the east end of Winnipeg through to the west also took place Wednesday afternoon to honour the 215 children. 

Miungun Niibibe says he was driving home Friday morning when he first heard about the discovery in B.C. and “went numb.” He had grown up knowing the stories of residential school children, but the physical evidence added greater impact, he said.

“It took me about a day to process it. Then Saturday it just really hit me emotionally and it felt like I lost my own child,” he said.

Niibibe felt compelled to honour the 215 children in some way. He has mobility issues but can drive, he said.

Miungun Niibibe, shown here putting a flag on his vehicle, organized Wednesday’s car procession, which passed by the Manitoba Legislature. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

He decided to dress his vehicle in orange — such as an orange flag that reads “215” — and drive across Winnipeg, inviting others to join if they chose. About 30 vehicles joined the procession.

“On one hand, I’m really glad that people are coming out and joining. On the other hand, I’m not too surprised because this has impacted us so profoundly and a lot of people are almost traumatized by this news, including myself,” said Niibibe.

The procession passed by the Manitoba Legislature and headed north on Memorial Boulevard as part of its route. That was to send a message to elected officials that Indigenous people are watching how they proceed with regards to unmarked burial sites at former residential schools, said Niibibe.

In its 94 Calls to Action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission included calls for all levels of government and churches to help find, document and maintain burial sites on former residential school grounds, and inform the families whose children or relatives were buried there.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is developing a strategy to address residential schools, said Grand Chief Dumas.

He wants to include church leaders in the conversation again too, saying they’ve grown silent on the issue despite having to atone for their role in running residential schools.

First Nations across Canada, including in Manitoba, are calling on the federal government to fund searches for unmarked burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools, which could give many people closure.

Manitoba’s opposition parties have also called on the Progressive Conservative government to search for residential school unmarked burial sites. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website, there were 14 residential schools in Manitoba recognized by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller read the names of some of the 215 children found into the House of Commons record Wednesday.

Support available for survivors

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.