After days of pressure, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered flags flown at half-mast on all federal buildings, including the Peace Tower on Parliament in Ottawa, after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a residential school.
In a tweet on Sunday afternoon, Trudeau said the move is “to honour the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops residential school and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families”.
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Indigenous community leaders and many others had called on the government to lower flags across Canada after a First Nation in the province of British Columbia (BC) announced this week that the remains of 215 children had been found on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation chief Rosanne Casimir.
To honour the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops residential school and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families, I have asked that the Peace Tower flag and flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 30, 2021
The discovery has spurred “a collective pain and trauma” for Indigenous communities across Canada, while also fuelling calls for concrete government action to address historical and ongoing rights abuses against First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded the country committed “cultural genocide” with its decades-long residential school system.
Between the 1870s and 1990s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools, which were run by churches and aimed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white Canadian society.
The children were separated from their families and barred from speaking Indigenous languages, and many experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse, among other forms of mistreatment.
Founded in 1890 and run by the Catholic Church, the Kamloops Indian Residential School eventually became the largest school in Canada’s residential school system, counting 500 children at its enrollment peak in the early 1950s.
“There is so much grief and trauma from the horrific news of the 215 children’s bodies being found,” opposition New Democratic Party parliament member Charlie Angus said on Twitter on Sunday. “I am pleased that the Prime Minister has agreed to lower the flags. But this just the beginning. We need answers. We need accountability.”
More than 4,000 Indigenous children are known to have died at residential schools, but efforts continue to try to find others who never returned home.
The discovery in Kamloops has raised longstanding questions about the ongoing legacy of colonialism in Canada – and the intergenerational trauma linked to residential schools that is still being felt in Indigenous communities across the country.
Many observers have also criticised Trudeau’s pledge to launch a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, pointing to the fact that some residential school survivors are still fighting for justice in court.
Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper formally apologised for the residential school system in 2008. But while the schools may be closed, Indigenous children continue to be taken away from their families in disproportionate numbers across Canada.
According to census data, more than 52 percent of children in foster care in 2016 were Indigenous, while Indigenous children made up only 7.7 percent of the country’s total population.
Observers have also pointed to the fact that very few of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Calls to Action” have been implemented to date. According to CBC News, only 10 of 94 recommendations had been completed as of April 12 of this year.
The Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre, said in December 2020 that only eight had been implemented. “Ultimately, we find that Canada is failing residential school Survivors and their families,” it said.
The commission had urged the pope “to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools”.
A majority of the residential schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Trudeau also asked for a papal apology, but Pope Francis said in March 2018 that he would not issue one. “Obviously I am disappointed in the Catholic Church’s decision not to apologize for their role in residential schools,” the prime minister said at that time.
Before Trudeau’s announcement on Sunday, several local leaders – including the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto – announced they would also lower flags to honour the Indigenous children who died at the Kamloops residential school.
The town of Merritt, British Columbia, said on Friday that it would keep its flags lowered for 215 hours in memory of the 215 children. “We must confront reality and acknowledge that atrocities related to residential schools have been committed in the communities we know and love,” Mayor Linda Brown said in a statement.