Warning: This story has disturbing details about Indian residential schools. If you are feeling triggered, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
The confirmation of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools has led to a global awakening on the effects of the harmful policy says the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Stephanie Scott, who has been with the NCTR since 2016, had only been in her new leadership position for a little over two months when 215 remains were located in unmarked graves on the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Scott remembers being in bed when the texts started rolling in about the news. Despite being aware of the existence of the graves, “it was still horrendous news to get.”
In the weeks that followed, the NCTR was overwhelmed. There was no time to plan out how to respond. Communities, survivors and families needed the NCTR team to help manage the harm that had become very visible.
“It was a bad time,” says Scott on the latest episode of Face to Face.
It was a triggering experience for survivors and families. For many Canadians and people around the globe, the discovery came as a complete shock.
The result says Scott was a change in mindset amongst Canadians, governments, and organizations.
“I haven’t seen this kind of reaction in the last six years, at all. We had to do a lot of outreach, a lot of begging for help, a lot of interactions with governments, provinces, organizations, in order to support us and then all of the sudden, it’s flipped, it’s changed,” says Scott, who is Anishinaabe from Roseau River First Nation.
“People are calling us saying ‘how can I help, we want to work with survivors, we want the truth to be known.’ As we know, there is still thousands of children that continue to be found and will be found right across this country.
“And it’s absolutely crucial that we all work together because this work is going to take decades to do and it’s not an easy journey but it’s a path of reconciliation and until we know the truth, I think we’re going to be stuck for a little bit.”
The NCTR has a student memorial register with 4,126 names on but that list is going to continue to grow says Scott, who is an intergenerational survivor.
Prior to joining the NCTR team, Scott was the manager of statement gathering with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s final report on Canada’s residential schools includes an entire volume on missing children and unmarked burials.
Scott attended all of the TRC’s community events and thinks of the courage it took for the survivors to contribute to the report. Many have been lost since the closing of the TRC in 2015 and Scott says “it’s unfair they didn’t see full reconciliation in their lifetime.”
Many families are also still searching for information on their children and where they ended up.
“As a parent, I think about the 5,6,7,8-year olds that have been lying in bed, sick in infirmaries. I’ve heard stories of 4,5,6-year-olds holding each other when they’re ill with fever in order to take care of and support them. Little children that had actually died and passed away in the arms of another child.
“And as a parent, I can’t understand or fathom how that happened or how that took place and how do we repair that? How do we recover from that? And that really is what reconciliation is about. And the truth is still ongoing and it’s not history, it’s still present and it’s today,” says Scott.
A national advisory council is currently being developed to help communities with ground searches. The council will include numerous experts and will develop a toolkit for communities, many that have been reaching out, not having the expertise or know how of where to start the process.
A big part of the process involves records. The province of Ontario recently agreed to transfer 1,800 death records of Indigenous children to the NCTR. It took six years to reach the agreement.
The NCTR says the death records are essential to finding and identifying all the children who died due to the residential school system.
Scott says “each one of those records holds a little spirit.”
Following the discovery of the unmarked graves, “there’s been an awakening” says Scott. All of the sudden, governments are reaching out and saying they’re ready to hand over records.
Still, millions of documents from churches, and governments have not been turned over.
Scott acknowledges some of the documents have been politicized.
“There’s a story there. There’s truth there. It’s harm done to children. It’s a travesty,” says Scott. “We all know the truth because survivors have been saying it for a long time. During the truth and reconciliation commission, they were finally validated and vindicated and when I think back to those sessions, you know how painful that was for some of them.
We sat in those statement gathering activities and there was wailing and crying and people were passing out and dropping to the floor and vomiting. So for the deniers to say that wasn’t the truth. I totally disagree.”
The NCTR will not be part of a delegation heading to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis – but if she was going her message would be “give us the records.” The Catholic church ran 65 residential schools.
She says negotiations with the church for over one thousand boxes of documents have been going on for years. The NCTR has been given access to five of those boxes.
As for the apology by the Pope, on Canadian soil, Scott says it would be wonderful to see the Pope “in a pipe ceremony, acknowledging our peoples and cultures and the harms that took place and really understanding what they tried to destroy and how important that is for our people to continue on the path of reconciliation.”