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Close to Home - the Residential School in River Heights

This post is from an article I wrote and which appeared in the Sou-Wester paper June 16, 2021.

The Assiniboine Indian Residential School on Academy Road, operated from 1958 to 1973.  

The school ran from 1958 to 1967 with an annual enrollment of about 100 youth from First Nations communities across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North-western Ontario.  From 1967 to 1973 the school served as a hostel where students stayed while attending area High Schools. 

In recent days, Canadians have been shocked to learn of the 215 children’s bodies found in unmarked graves near Kamloops, British Columbia.  Led by indigenous people, the search of other sites across Canada will continue, possibly including the Assiniboine residential school site.

Fifteen years ago, in the spring of 2006, I visited the Brandon friendship centre. There I saw a plaque which honoured children who stayed at the Brandon residential school between 1896 and 1923 and never went home. 

I was shocked to learn that so many children had died there, and that so many were never able to go home.  The stories from Brandon, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the recent findings in Kamloops make it clear that Indian Residential Schools were a long and horrific trail of tears – and as the TRC said a cultural genocide.

Many of the families of children who died in Kamloops were not even properly notified. The loss of a child for any reason is one of the most tragic things that can happen to a family. A child lost without any word of what happened is unbelievable. I extend my sympathy to the mem­bers of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation who were, have been or are again being unbearably traumatized by experiences at this residential school or by the recent discovery.

The journey of reconciliation is a long one, and it will not be easy.  Today is a turning point in wide understanding of the foundational importance of the work of Justice Murray Sinclair and his fellow Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners: Dr. Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild. 

They and many who worked at or shared their stories to the TRC have provided so much detail including 266 pages on “Missing children and unmarked burials”.  Their work and subsequent efforts have identified more than 4,000 who died attending residential schools. The recent dis­covery shows there are many more still to be found.

Calls to Action 71 to 76 of the TRC deals specifically with miss­ing children and burial information. The re­com­­mendations describe work that still needs to be done to identify burial sites, to search these sites, and to provide information on children who died to the families who lost children so that Indigenous ceremonies can be completed for them.  

This is needed to find the truth and to achieve justice for families who lost children.  We must rededicate ourselves to imple­menting all the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission today.

Progress so far has been far too slow.  Action must happen at both provincial and federal levels.  

I hope that the incredible loss discovered in the Kamloops community will re-energize all of us to act, and to move forward in reconciliation in what we do every day.  

We need to know more of our history, even when it is painful, and to rededicate ourselves to improving how our precious children and grandchildren are cared for today.  The children who were lost, and the family members who survive will remain in my thoughts for a long time. 

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