Dr. Wilton Littlechild, International Chief and former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), says over the years when he’d speak at hearings, he would place an empty chair next to him, so he could invite the spirit of the child he was speaking on behalf of to be present.
“It hurts to find 215 children who may have been sitting on my chair through the years,” he said.
Dr. Littlechild was the keynote speaker at the memorial ceremony held at Maskwacis Bear Park on Monday, May 31, in honour of the 215 children found in a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The remains were discovered at the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Kamloops Indian Residential School via ground-penetrating radar on May 27. The harrowing discovery inspired memorials across the country.
Dr. Littlechild was six years old when he was taken to the Ermineskin residential school.
He recalled how he was told he was possessed by the devil because he was left-handed, and made to stay inside at recess for extra practice at the chalkboard.
He spoke of being close enough to home that he could see his grandparent’s home from a window, and how he thought of running away.
Mortality rates were high at residential schools because the federal government did not develop adequate regulations to ensure health and safety, and what minimal standards they did have, were not enforced, says Dr. Littlechild.
Dr. Littlechild says the Kamloops mass grave was abandoned, with no measures taken against accidental disturbance.
The practice in the majority of residential schools was to not send the body of a student home when they died, according to Dr. Littlechild.
He says to imagine how painful that was for mothers, not only to not now where their child was, but to not be able to have ceremonies for them.
“The work of the commission is far from complete,” he said, adding there is much still left to do to honour victims and support families who are now in pain, he says.
“Please keep them in your prayers.”
The mood was reverent and sombre as members of the Four Nations of Maskwacis gathered, either in-person wearing masks or listening to the livestream of the event, to honour the memory of the 215 children and all the ones who are yet to be found.
Elders from the four nations offered an invocation to begin the ceremony: Eugene Buffalo, Henry Raine, Cecil Crier and Marvin Littlechild.
Earlier in the day, a pipe ceremony and prayers were conducted at Ermineskin residential school monument site.
The stadium was filled with 215 teddy bears, each with an orange ribbon, to represent each of the 215 children and for all others who are still missing.
The teddy bears were offered to residential and day school survivors at the end of the ceremony.
Two minutes and 15 seconds of silence were observed, followed by the singing of the Grandmothers Song, performed by the Matriarchs of Maskwacis.
The chief from each of the Four Nations spoke; Chief Leonard Standing on the Road, Montana First Nation; Chief Irvin Bull, Louis Bull Tribe; Chief Vernon Saddleback, Samson Cree Nation; and Chief Randy Ermineskin, Ermineskin Cree Nation.
“This matters,” said Chief Saddleback during his address.
“The 215 children need to be remembered. They deserve to be remembered, along with everyone else who went to residential schools. That’s why this matters,” he said.
“We’re in danger of being written out of history by white people … 215 never came home … it’s up to you (the next generation) now.”
Dr. Littlechild says four small skeletons were found in the foundation of the Ermineskin residential school, and there is believed to be more.
“Perhaps we too, have an obligation to find out, to make the words true: ‘Every Child Matters.’”
“We didn’t know them four days ago, but we know them now.”
Chief Ermineskin thanked all the women who organized the event.
Brielle Morin Reindeer, a student from Montana First Nation, read a poem by Abigail Echo-Hawk.
To close the ceremony, the Northern Cree Drum Group performed the Honour Song.
The TRC’s research has verified that large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities.
Their final report, issued more than five years ago, details “the harsh mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children at the institutions, where at least 3,200 children died amid abuse and neglect.” (The Canadian Press)
The Missing Children Project has identified more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school to-date.
The Government of Alberta announced on May 31 that it will commit funds to uncover burial sites at former residential schools.
“Today, I am announcing the Alberta government’s intention to fund research into the undocumented deaths and burials of hundreds of Indigenous children who did not make their way home,” said Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson.
“We know that at least 25 such schools operated in Alberta,” said Métis Nation of Alberta President Audrey Poitras in a press release.
“We welcome Minister Wilson’s recent announcement of funding to search for similar burial sites in this province, and we hope that the Alberta government’s actions will be more than performative and that they will stand up for Indigenous rights across all areas of our lives.”