Memorial event commemorating one year since the confirmation of unmarked graves at a residential school in Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc

May 23, 2022

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I’m honoured to join you here today, and I acknowledge that we are gathered on the territory of the Secwépemc Nation, specifically the territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

I also open my heart to the survivors who are with us today, and to the families and communities that suffered generational trauma from the many threads intertwined with the residential schools experience.

You knew. You’ve known for so long.

You knew what happened here, the atrocities, the deaths, the loss. And the silence.

So many children, gone. So much possibility. Gone.

It has been called a discovery. The discovery of unmarked graves of children cruelly ripped away from this life too soon. But it isn’t a discovery so much as a confirmation of your experiences and the knowledge passed down from generation to generation.  

And now everyone knows. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but finally, people know. And knowing has transformed this community. People have made pilgrimages here, to pay their respects, to say they’re sorry, to show their support.

But you haven’t yet had time to grieve, to make peace in your hearts. I hope today contributes to that process of healing.

It will take time. Healing is a migration, not a destination. It begins slowly, softly, carefully. It follows its own path, carrying us forward, but also in many other directions.

Yesterday, I walked a path through these grounds. Since then, I’ve searched for the words to convey my horror, my pain.

Horror at the images that filled my heart with sorrow, of the fear and anguish every child here endured. Pain at the senseless loss of life in your families and communities.

It’s unimaginable that a place of learning was so cruel. It’s inexcusable that people could commit these atrocities, or that people could stand silent as they were committed.

In our communities, towns and cities, we expect our schools to be places of learning and friendship.

Here, at the Kamloops residential school, that was a lie.

It was here Indigenous children unlearned who they were. Unlearned your culture and language and beliefs. Unlearned how to value themselves.

They followed the orders given to them. Don’t ask questions. Don’t speak your language. Obey. Be silent. Be still. Follow. 

Over the years, we, as Indigenous peoples, have rediscovered our voice, but that doesn’t mean people listened or understood.

Today, we make ourselves heard across the country. Although it’s hard, we’re telling Canadians and the world about our wounds and pain, our anguish and outrage. And I know that so many have now heard us.  From every corner of the country, we are united in the horror and sadness we feel.  And now we must find a way forward together and to be united in saying “Never again will we stay silent.”

So many unmarked graves. So many children who suffered and died because society thought they knew what was best, because people turned a blind eye.

Today, we honour the victims. We honour the children who suffered, the lives gone unfulfilled and all that could have been.

No child deserves to be treated with disrespect, to be dismissed, abused, made to feel less than human. And no child deserves to have their friends disappear, never to be seen again, always wondering, am I next.

Residential schools have left a long legacy of guilt, shame, fear and fury.

But as hurt as I am, as sad as I am, I can only end by speaking of hope.

Because there is always hope.

Hope that the preservation of these places, the stories told and retold, will bring about understanding and respect.

Hope that we can begin to heal, begin to forgive ourselves for being here when so many others aren’t. And hope that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can work together to build a better society, one free of judgement and inequality, one where everyone can speak and hear the truth.

A Canada where we truly belong without giving up who we are, where we have safe spaces to tell our stories.

We, as Indigenous peoples, grow up with legends and myths, of creation and family. Eventually, we make our own stories, which we pass down to the next generation.

At this residential school and others like it across the country, churches and governments eradicated Indigenous languages and identity through corrupt policies. They took away our stories.

Over the years, too much of our culture, language and people have been lost because of residential schools, colonization and assimilation policies.

We still feel its impact today. We still experience trauma today.

For these children, their stories were cut short, but you won’t let it end like this. By speaking up, you strip away the anonymity forced upon them by this school.

These were young boys and girls, with hopes and dreams, love in their hearts and their lives ahead of them. They had families and friends and were integral to their community and culture.

And it’s up to all of us, across the country, to tell the stories of these kids, no different than any other child, no different than our children. To say in one voice: we failed them, and you.

We can never let that happen again.

The time for “we didn’t know” is over. To all Canadians, I deliver this message. Indigenous families didn’t know what happened to their children and many still don’t. Most Canadians didn’t know about residential schools. Now they do.

How, then, do we move forward from the shadows to the light and begin to heal?

Wherever I go in Canada or around the world, I vow to take your stories with me. I will share your stories and the stories of these children. I will do my part to bring their memories into the light.

I consider this a sacred responsibility, as governor general, as an honorary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a mother and a grandmother.

This is a responsibility all Canadians share. We all need to listen. We all need to understand.

It’s important that we teach the real history in our schools—the good and the bad. By incorporating this truth into our curriculum, we make sure the next generation grows up dedicated to building and restoring relationships, to reconciliation, to seeing things differently and to valuing Indigenous knowledge and stories.

Finally, I want to say how proud I am of you and your work. This isn’t easy. To face this painful past, the abuses suffered, both mental and physical, requires strength.

This community needs time, space and support to heal. Don’t diminish your own suffering. Make sure you take care of yourselves. Find strength where you can: in your hearts, with family and friends, from the community or, if you can, from mental health services.

This is the first community in Canada, but by no means the last, to experience this grief.

As a country, we must address the lack of available resources, training and support for mental health services in Indigenous communities. We must all work in unison to support each other and to champion accessible services that incorporates Indigenous knowledge and language.

There is a word in Inuktitut, my mother tongue: ajuinnata. It means to never give up, to keep going, no matter how difficult the cause may be.

You never gave up, you continued to tell your stories, continued to tell these children’s stories.

Together, you confront this painful past.

Together, you will make sure these children are brought home.

And together, we will continue building a better future for Indigenous peoples.

On behalf of all Canadians, I offer my sincerest condolences.

We mourn with you. We stand with you. We believe you.

Thank you.