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Investigations of cemeteries at former residential schools in the NWT would be possible if Indigenous governments lead them, Premier Caroline Cochrane said on May 31.

Cochrane spoke in the legislative assembly just days after an investigation of a grave site at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. revealed the remains of 215 children.

The discovery, first reported on May 27 by CBC and the Canadian Press, was announced after the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation hired a specialist to use ground-penetrating radar at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

READ HERE: Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked Cochrane if she would commit to forming a special committee or commission to investigate gravesites at any of the 14 residential schools in NWT, adding that the technology used in Kamloops is the same used in the NWT to measure ice thickness on the ice roads.

Indigenous people will lead investigations

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Cochrane responded that she would love to say “yes” and launch such a probe immediately, but said she would work in line with the protocols and calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

READ HERE: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

Citing Call to Action 76 on “documenting, maintaining, commemorating and protecting residential school cemeteries,” Cochrane read out loud 76.1, saying “’The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies.’ I’ll follow the guidance of Indigenous governments. I’ll bring it forward to the multilateral table with Indigenous governments.”

She also mentioned 76.3 which calls for Indigenous protocols to be respected before any potentially-invasive, technical inspection of a cemetery site is conducted.

Nokleby asked if she (the premier) would commit funding to Indigenous organizations so they can launch such investigations, Cochrane replied that she would speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the federal government’s obligations “because it was the government of Canada and the Catholic Church that did this to our children and they have an obligation.”

“I shall bring forward my opinion of the obligation.”

Nokleby said the premier would be supported in that discussion with the federal government. She added, when the TRC requested $1.5 million of the government to locate information on students who died — or burial sites — at residential schools in the past, it was denied.

The commission’s request was denied in 2009, a denial that “placed significant limits on the commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance,” according to volume four of the TRC’s Final report.

READ MORE: Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials

Nokleby also recalled travelling through Kamloops as a child and her mother pointing out the “ominous brick building on the river — the residential school.”

It wasn’t until she was an adult that she spoke with a survivor in the NWT about the reality of the schools.

“It was the first time I was aware of the lie I had been fed since birth (of the) kind, benevolent Canada,” Nokleby said.

Cochrane and Nokleby’s exchange came in a sessions where MLAs expressed their sadness and condolences over the news.

Moment of silence for victims

Addressing the legislative assembly, house speaker Frederick Blake Jr. said Canadian flags in the NWT were lowered to half mast in recognition of the victims in Kamloops.

“This discovery shouldn’t surprise us but it does. We can’t help but be shocked by the scale of the horrors that occurred. Residential schools aren’t just part of our past, they’re part of our present and their legacy will be a part of our future.”

Blake then led the assembly in a moment of silence dedicated to memory of the victims of all residential schools.

Painful legacy lives on

Cochrane told MLAs the discovery reminds Canadians of the system that attempted a cultural genocide against Indigenous people by trying to destroy their language and culture.

She offered her condolences to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir and the families of the “215 spirits who can now come home to rest after all these years.”

Cochrane said the legacy of residential schools lives on through multigenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples due to the physical, psychological, sexual and spiritual abuse inflicted after people were taken from their homes by the Canadian government and Catholic Church.

“This is a harmful reminder that the history of the residential school system continues to have a long lasting impact on families and survivors,” she said.

The premier said there is support for those struggling or triggered by the news from B.C. and said the National Indian Residential School Crisis line is open 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

‘Let’s never forget this happened’

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty said he was still “reeling” from the news out of Kamloops, and pointed out that children believed to be as young as three were found among the human remains.

“It’s a terrible reminder of the unspoken abuses that Indigenous peoples have suffered in Canada,” Lafferty said. “Those 215 skeletons were somebody’s children, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers, sisters, aunties and uncles. As a residential school survivor myself this is truly disturbing and traumatizing. Let’s never forget this happened. It can’t be hidden.”

‘Indigenous people know the stories’

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said the news was heart breaking but not shocking because Indigenous people had heard such stories before.

Residential schools were part of a policy designed to destroy Indigenous peoples and take away their land and which continues today through missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, over representation of Indigenous men in the judicial system and children taken away from families.

“We’re still here today and we’re strong and resilient. This (should) never be forgotten and repeated. May God rest their little souls,” she said.

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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