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.
Canada – A year ago this week, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented” had been confirmed.
The community on Canada’s west coast said it had discovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School. “Some were as young as three years old,” Kukpi7/Chief Rosanne Casimir said.
For decades, Indigenous communities had known about deaths at residential schools, the forced-assimilation institutions that more than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children in Canada were forced to attend between the late 1800s and 1990s.
But the findings in Kamloops sent shockwaves across the country, spurring widespread calls for justice and accountability for the many abuses that took place at the state-backed and church-run institutions.
In the weeks and months that followed Kamloops, many more unmarked grave sites were uncovered in the provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Indigenous communities launched new searches of their own elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, the churches that ran the institutions – most notably the Roman Catholic Church – faced growing public pressure to release documents related to residential schools and account for their role in the harms that were committed.
Here, Al Jazeera speaks to Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba, about what has happened in the year since the unmarked graves were discovered in Kamloops, what support residential school survivors need, and what more must be done to uncover the full truth of what happened.
Al Jazeera: Residential-school survivors had spoken about deaths at the institutions for decades. But what impact did the discovery in Kamloops last year – and the subsequent discoveries at other former sites – have on them and on Canada overall?
Stephanie Scott: I worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and I was the manager of statement-gathering (PDF). So, I had been all over the country, from coast to coast to coast, and sitting with survivors and elders and knowledge-keepers.
And no matter where I was in the country, we always heard oral histories from survivors that mentioned the deaths of their peers and children that went missing or did not return from residential school, or had become ill and were taken away, never to be seen again.
We had gone through the Commission, there was a full volume report on missing children and unmarked burials (PDF) – and even [with that], it still did not soften the emotional impact of what happened to those little ones. All of a sudden … it just made this connection to the heart, and people – Indigenous and non – really wanted to understand what had happened.
Al Jazeera: So what has the past year been like, seeing more and more unmarked graves found across the country?
Scott: For us at the NCTR, the work really has quadrupled.
We have survivors that are looking for their records. They want to find out information as to their time in residential schools. It left an emotional impact that increased searches across the country at other former residential school sites. We know that that work is going to continue, I anticipate, for the next 10-20 years before we figure out exactly what happened.
The national memorial student register has over 4,000 names on it currently. We continue to do research. Names are being found every day. There’s growing public support for Indigenous-led research into these investigations. There’s support for ways to heal both individually and collective[ly] as Indigenous peoples.
I see non-Indigenous peoples coming together and they’re really listening to and learning the truths that survivors continue to live with. They’re actually listening and recognising what took place. To me, that’s been the biggest change – that all of a sudden Canadians at large are paying attention and standing up and asking what they can do.
Al Jazeera: You mentioned more than 4,000 names being on the register right now. How many names do you believe will ultimately be on that list?
Scott: During the TRC, the estimate was about 6,000 names. I can tell you in the last year, we continue to acquire records – records that the TRC did not hold – so I would say that we’re going to surpass the 6,000. Just looking at one school, we’ve added an additional just over 20 names.
That number is definitely going to grow.
Al Jazeera: When a name gets added to that list, this no doubt affects their families and loved ones, but also communities as a whole. How wide-reaching is this impact, and how important is it for communities to know what happened to the children?
Scott: There continues to be names added every day.
When you think that it’s 2022, and we still don’t know all of the children – there are still families, mothers, grandmothers, grandpas and aunties who don’t know what happened to their children who went to residential schools and never returned home.
I’ve read stories of children that are ingesting hemlock to kill themselves, so they don’t have to live in the schools. Or I read a letter from a father, writing to the school administration, that said, “How could you bury my child without even telling me?” And this is weeks later, after their death.
Or children that had died and could not be sent home because it was just too expensive to put their body on the train. So I’m reading these kinds of things and I think that people really need to understand what happened, what those impacts are, and the legacy that was left behind.
How can you live a fruitful life knowing that your child is missing? That they had attended an institution that was supposed to be an educational facility, but in the end, those little ones – the vulnerable little children were tortured [and faced] horrific abuse. It’s long-reaching and it’s still present and we still face those impacts today.
Al Jazeera: What type of support do residential-school survivors, their families and their communities need now?
Scott: They need wellness. They need mental health supports. They need cultural ceremonies, traditional Indigenous ceremonies, for those that practice spirituality. I think that it’s really important that people come together and talk about what has happened, how it’s impacted them.
For some of the survivors that we worked with, and for the strongest of the strong, have been overwhelmed emotionally and I’ve seen them shed tears because those were their friends, those were their brothers and sisters who died in the residential schools.
To continuously be aware that day after day, there continues to be little ones lost or found in unmarked burials – it’s devastating for a community.
Al Jazeera: We saw Indigenous delegates travel to Rome and meet with the pope, who then offered an apology for the role members of the Catholic Church played in residential school abuses. How did survivors you work with respond to that?
Scott: They’re saying there’s still a lot of work to be done. We are looking for a more fulsome apology. There [are] reparations that need to happen still. There needs to be; artefacts that need to be returned.
[Pope Francis] is coming [to Canada] in July, so I think for many [survivors], some will agree that it’s a great thing, it’s wonderful, I’m glad that it’s happening – and others want absolutely nothing to do with it because they’re still harmed by it. They’re not at the point where they’re even interested in listening to an apology.
It’s so individual, it’s difficult to say how it is for everybody en masse.
But in the last year, we’ve worked with the church organisations and they disclosed to us that there are boxes upon boxes of records that we did not previously hold. So even that relationship with connecting with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to let us know that there is information that we do not hold, is a step in the right direction.
It doesn’t mean it’s finalised because I can tell you there’s decades of work to do. And every time I speak to another organisation, or a church group, they’re like, “Oh, well we have a repository of records here.” [Or,] “Oh, we found some records that had never been digitised before.”
We still need to do a lot more research to find the full truth over the next years.
Al Jazeera: Overall, what would you want people to know about the last year in Canada?
Scott: I think in the last year, I personally have seen tremendous, historic growth in public awareness and support for survivors, their families and finding the full truth and how that’s going to lead us on a path to reconciliation. We’re not a fully reconciled country yet – but I’m hopeful.
It provides hope to me because when I was travelling during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, survivors told me time and time again, ‘Please share my story, share my life and oral history so that this doesn’t happen again.’
The more that we do that, the more Canadians become educated, they have to do work – they have to champion the 94 Calls to Action (PDF).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.