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'A national embarrassment': Hundreds attend virtual forum on residential schools

'You should feel uncomfortable with the misinformation, and you should feel outraged. It’s important that you do,' says Lakehead official at 90-minute forum

Lakehead University hosted a live online forum - When History Hurts: A Community Dialogue - on Monday night.

The event was meant to inspire conversation about residential schools, the story of Indigenous-settler relations, and to provide education on how community members can play a role in truth and reconciliation. More than 200 households pre-registered for the meeting which lasted about 90 minutes.

Councillor Lorraine McRae from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation kicked off the event by offering a prayer and a land acknowledgement.

McRae later announced that Rama First Nation is building a pathway in honour of the survivors of residential schools, day schools and the Sixties Scoop. The pathway will be located between the Rama Health Centre and Rama Pow Wow grounds, and it will be ready in three or four weeks.

“There is a portion that is for the children that never made it home and the children who are still out there in the child welfare (system) who we are still waiting to come home,” McRae said.

Jesse Boiteau, senior archivist at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), was on hand to offer details about missing children and unmarked burials.

“In September of 2019, the NCTR launched the national memorial register to honour the children who passed away at a residential school. This was a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's (TRC) call to action 72 to build a student death register,” Boiteau explained.

“To date, we have identified 4,120 children whose names were made public after months of engagement with Indigenous communities across the country.”

Boiteau says the NCTR is working on the second phase of the missing children project which builds on the work of the TRC to review all records by the church and government entities who operated residential schools.

“This ensures that no stone is left unturned in our archives in our ongoing efforts to identify children who died at a residential school as well as any information to unmarked burials,” he said.

“We are currently working with an indigenous research firm to review the remaining 2.3 million records in our archives not previously reviewed by the TRC’s own research.”

The NCTR is also working on a project related to unmarked burials project.

“The scope of this project is evolving as we better understand the needs of communities during this difficult time. We are developing our missing children database to integrate information on unmarked burials and have a direct link between the children listed and their final resting place,” Boiteau explained.

“We will build an online registry of marked and unmarked burial sites related to residential schools. After engaging with communities, we would make information related to these sites available," said Boiteau. 

"This will serve as a way to honour the unnamed children who passed away, and it will offer a reminder of the legacy of residential schools to ensure the lives of these children are never forgotten.”

The NCTR is also developing a network of experts from across the country who can work alongside and under the direction of indigenous communities to ensure the voices of survivors are heard and valued.

“This country has a tough lesson to learn as the accounts of survivors regarding unmarked burials went unheard by the federal government for decades until scientific proof was presented,” Boiteau said.

“This underscores the need for survivors and communities to be leading this work rather than being seen as only subjects of investigations.”

Lastly, the NCTR is offering a central repository where communities can utilize online storage and guidance where they can store files and data for site investigations and share information between community members and site investigators.

“This would ensure those investigations in provinces and across territories follow specific guidelines that make for better analysis and cross-referencing of the data after investigations are complete,” Boiteau explained.

“It would also set up partnerships between the NCTR and communities who wish to have their records and research data preserved at the centre as official records to confront the accounts found in government and church records.”

Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Chair on Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University, showed event attendees a map that showed how many residential schools were once set up across Canada and it showed where they were located.

“Residential schools were set up across Canada to enable the federal government and the people who were pushing this policy and this practice to incarcerate these small children. Many of these children being found are as young as three and four years old,” Wesley-Esquimaux explained.

“If you look around you at your nephews and nieces or brothers and sisters and understand what a four-year-old looks like and imagine someone coming into your home and telling you they have to take this child or you will have to go to jail, and you may never see that child again, how might that feel?”

Wesley-Esquimaux says Canadians need to understand Indigenous communities and educate themselves better going forward.

“We need to understand as Canadians that the Indigenous community, even though they suffered through this for seven generations and lost 75,000 children through this experiment, they still can be extremely forgiving. They still want to share their culture with you, they will tell you their stories, and they will be a part of Canada in a very profound way as they always have been,” she said.

“You should feel uncomfortable with the misinformation, and you should feel outraged. It’s important that you do. But I want you to feel comfortable speaking to Indigenous people and not feel shy when they are sharing their experiences and helping you understand it," she said.

Wesley-Esquimaux says it's important that Canadians build personal relationships with Indigenous people and their communities.

“I’ve learned over the course of many years of working in this field that you need to have the experience of knowing Indigenous peoples in a very personal way. Breaking bread with them, attending their pow wows and other ceremonies when you are invited. Out of those experiences comes compassion, and you can’t have compassion unless you’ve had those experiences,” she said.

The panel fielded questions about related issues from the event's attendees. One question asked the panelists what should happen to the living perpetrators from residential schools. Should they face justice and stand trial for their crimes?  

“Accountability and responsibility must be taken and also restitution. There needs to be a sincere apology with a lot of action behind it,” McRae said.

“I know in the regular Canadian justice system that we have today they would prosecute, and it’s really up to the families to decide what will bring about healing for them.”

Another attendee asked with a federal election likely on the horizon, are there resources to ask candidates about their commitments to ensure action comes from the government?

“Many of the candidates are not Indigenous and have not been exposed to these particular things, and many of the parties are not particularly supportive of this either which is the truth,” Wesley-Esquimaux said.

“I think that’s why Canadians don’t know as much as they don’t know, because it’s never been seen as a priority for education or for the government to address.”

Wesley-Esquimaux encourages Canadians to use any resources they can find to ask candidates how they will ensure reconciliation.

“This is a national embarrassment, a horrific story, and we want some answers. We want to know if this is going to be embedded into our history and taught in our schools,” she said.

McRae also fielded a question about the importance of getting trauma-informed care into the education system and communities.

“All of the survivors now live with trauma that has been passed on through generations. Most adults now suffer from post-traumatic stress from their childhood when they were physically and sexually abused, which causes physical and psychological changes to the mind and to the body,” McRae explained.

“Children from these residential schools saw other children being taken from their beds at night by caregivers and somewhere to never be seen again," McRae explained.

"Many adults today use alcohol and drugs to medicate, it’s used to medicate ourselves from the pain that is caused from this childhood trauma. It’s really like dying a very slow death, and for some, it’s not even enough to numb that pain," she said.

McRae says trauma has resulted in Indigenous communities experiencing suicide and suicide attempts over the years.

“It’s devastating and devastating to our families. We need to understand that these are children that were traumatized who are adults today, and we cannot treat them with disrespect when we see that they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or whatever it is,” she said.

“What is needed is love and compassion so these adults can heal from the pain.”