Island flags lowered to honour dead children found at former Kamloops residential school

Vancouver Island towns and cities and schools are lowering flags today and promoting the wearing of orange shirts in honour of the 215 children whose remains were found at a former residential school in Kamloops.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Sunday that all federal building flags be flown at half-mast to honour all Indigenous children who “never made it home,” the survivors of the school and their families.

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Victoria, Esquimalt and Nanaimo are joining other communities across the country today to bring their flags to half-mast. The Greater Victoria School District and independent schools like St. Margaret’s are also lowering school flags and have sent out advisories inviting their communities to wear orange shirts.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

She described the discovery as “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” It operated from 1890 to 1978 and was the largest in the Indian Affairs residential school system.

Plans are underway to bring in forensics experts to identify and repatriate the remains of the children buried on the site.

“The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past,” Mayor Lisa Helps said Sunday.

“These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing.”

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said the Esquimalt Municipal Hall flag will be at half-mast for 215 hours to June 8.

Desjardins said the discovery illustrates how much more needs to be done with reconciliation efforts, and worries that much of what has been achieved in reconciliation in the province this past year will be lost under the cloud of this latest information.

Helps said the legacy of colonialism will require more than symbolic gestures like the lowering of flags and needs action from all non-Indigenous people and all levels of government to honour Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous laws, and Indigenous ways of knowing.

“The discovery of the children’s bodies should move us all to redouble our reconciliation efforts in real and meaningful ways,” Helps said in an email.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said the city stands “united in grief with our Indigenous friends and neighbours all across the country to honour the lives of those children, their families, survivors and all children who never made it home from this dark chapter of our history.”

Central Saanich is lowering flags at municipal hall, police and fire stations for 215 hours: “Our hearts are broken for these children, their families, communities and our W̱SÁNEĆ neighbours.

The Greater Victoria School district is lowering all school flags and inviting its school community to wear orange shirts this week to honour the lives lost.

“As a school district that strongly believes in working towards truth and reconciliation and our continued work in becoming culturally responsive, this is horrific news that we know may have an impact on our students, staff and communities,” said superintendent Shelley Green. “We encourage you to reach out to those in your circle and check in to see how they are doing and seek support if required.”

The discovery of the remains is a reminder of the past injustices to Indigenous children, their families, and communities, said Sharon Klein, head of school at independent St. Margaret’s School. To honour them, students and staff are encouraged to wear orange shirts and the school is lowering the Canadian flag to half-mast “until further notice” as a sign of respect.

“During this difficult and tragic time, please stay connected to one another,” Klein wrote to school community members. “Let us join our hands and hearts to courageously persist in creating an equitable and just world.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada says large numbers of Aboriginal children sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities; some ran away while others died at the schools.

The students who did not return have come to be known as the “missing children.” The Missing Children Project is documenting the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the residential schools and thus far has identified the names of, or information about, just over 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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