As more unmarked graves are found, Indigenous communities face renewed trauma
TORONTO -- Indigenous communities are grappling with renewed trauma from the findings of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools.
In the four days following the finding of 215 unmarked burial sites in Kamloops, B.C., crisis lines offering emotional support saw a 265-per-cent increase in calls.
And they keep coming.
Nola Jeffrey heads a healing centre in B.C. that runs a crisis line.
"We are getting way, way, way, way more calls, calls directly from survivors that […] still have not told their story […] but are now willing to tell it, do not want to keep quiet anymore,” Jeffrey told CTV News. “A lot of it is because […] they were brainwashed to believe that no one would believe what they were saying.”
That trauma is only expected to increase as more burial sites are confirmed. On Wednesday, the Cowessess First Nation said in a media advisory that they had located “hundreds” of graves in the area around the Marieval Indian Residential School.
The full extent will be released in a press conference on Thursday, but the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said in the advisory that “the number of unmarked graves will be the most significantly substantial to date in Canada.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 6,000 children died in these schools — a term that Jeffrey strongly objects to because of how it sanitizes the atrocities that took place there.
"I don't like calling them schools,” she said. “Schools are a place where […] you’re nurtured and you're held so that your gifts can come out, and those places were not that at all, they were like, I guess — concentration camps would be the best word I could use to explain them.”
For generations of First Nation families, it’s a familiar story, one that Suzanne Stewart is painfully acquainted with.
Stewart’s mother and siblings went to residential school. She’s now a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto.
“I think Indigenous individuals and communities need to have the focus of being able to choose how we want to address these issues,” she told CTV News.
Chief Aaron Young, who spoke at a press conference Wednesday as Alberta pledged $8 million to locate the remains of children at former residential schools, also knows the pain of survivors.
“I’m one of them,” he said. “And I was in day school myself. The treatment we received during that time, we thought that was normal.”
Aside from grants, some regions are looking for other ways to address the need for reconciliation and acknowledgement.
Canada Day is right around the corner, but celebrations of it are being cancelled in some parts of the country, with many seeing a celebration of the country’s inception as insulting in the light of the increased discussion around the violent, colonial beginnings of the country.
Not all agree. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said that he doesn’t think cancelling Canada Day is the right move.
“Let’s ensure we do not forget or cover it up,” he said Wednesday. “But let’s also channel the pain of a Canada falling short to build up the country, not tear it down.”
But others see skipping the holiday as one potential step in acknowledging the pain that has gone covered up for too long.
“I think foregoing Canada Day celebrations is one way to begin to address that, to acknowledge that the celebration of Canada is actually not only disrespectful but hugely traumatic to Indigenous people,” Stewart said.
Survivors are saying these recent findings are just the tip of the iceberg, as more truths come out, and more unmarked graves are confirmed across the country.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.