Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting Williams Lake First Nation, an Indigenous community on the country’s west coast that recently uncovered dozens of potential unmarked graves on the grounds of a former “residential school”.
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Trudeau and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller are meeting local leaders and residential school survivors, as well as touring the site of the former St Joseph Mission Residential School.
A preliminary search of the former school grounds uncovered 93 “reflections” believed to be unmarked gravesites, Williams Lake announced in January.
“We’re thankful that the Prime Minister is making the time to visit Williams Lake First Nation,” Chief Willie Sellars said in a statement announcing the visit.
“This trip has been a long time in the making, and we have much to discuss about the St. Joseph’s Mission investigation, the Government of Canada’s role in residential school investigations, and Canada’s commitment to the goals of Reconciliation,” Sellars said.
Hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites across Canada since last May, fuelling widespread calls for justice and accountability for the victims and survivors of the forced-assimilation institutions.
Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children to attend residential schools between the late 1800s and 1990s. The children were stripped of their languages and culture, separated from siblings, and subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Thousands are believed to have died while attending the institutions, which were run by various churches, most notably the Roman Catholic Church.
A federal commission of inquiry into the institutions, known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), concluded in 2015 that Canada’s residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide”.
Thousands of children from Williams Lake First Nation, as well as other Indigenous communities, were forced to attend St Joseph, which operated as a residential school from 1891 to 1981.
“I am here both to indicate that all of Canada grieves with this community at the loss, the feelings of loss that have come since the discovery of the reflections, but also the deep loss that this community has felt over generations because of the legacy of residential schools,” Trudeau said during a ceremony on Wednesday.
“I’m mostly here to listen, to learn, to hear from elders and community members on what the path forward looks like, not just for this community but for this country – in partnership, in respect, in reconciliation.”
The prime minister’s visit comes as an Indigenous delegation is currently in Rome to seek an apology from Pope Francis for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
“The church has a long way to walk before we can possibly forgive them for what they did,” Mitch Case, a member of the provisional council of the Metis Nation of Ontario, said after a meeting with the pope on Monday.
“But if he [Pope Francis] is willing to walk with us then we will be willing to walk with him.”