Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trudeau asks for lowered flags to honour dead residential schoolchildren

TORONTO — Flags on federal buildings will be lowered for the 215 children whose bodies were found at a former British Columbia residential school, the prime minister said Sunday as communities across Canada began mounting their own tributes to the students.

Justin Trudeau said on social media his request includes the Peace Tower flag. It comes as some called for a national day of mourning.

“To honour the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops residential school and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families, I have asked that the Peace Tower flag and flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast,” Trudeau said in a statement.

The children’s remains were located using ground-penetrating radar last weekend at the site in Kamloops, B.C., in the province’s Interior.

Trudeau’s flag call came as plans were being made to identify and return home the remains. The effort could involve the B.C. Coroners Service, the Royal B.C. Museum and forensics experts, Indigenous leaders have said.

Earlier this week, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said the discovery of the children, some as young as three years old, is an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented” at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

She said more bodies might be found because there were more areas to search on the grounds.

The Kamloops residential school operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963.

The Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, R. Stacey LaForme, wrote Trudeau on Saturday to ask the government to lower the flags and declare a national day of mourning.

“There is a lot more to be done but first and foremost, we need to do this to show love and respect to the 215 children, all of the children, and their families,” LaForme said in a statement. “This should be a moment that the country never forgets.”

Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous NDP legislator who represents the Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong, called on the province and Canadian government to work with all First Nations to look for remains at other defunct residential schools.

“It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools — an open secret that Canadians can no longer look away from,” Mamakwa said in a statement. “In keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Projects, every school site must be searched for the graves of our ancestors.”

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said the legacy of Canada’s residential schools is “one of deep intergenerational trauma, rooted in attempted cultural genocide and assimilation.”

Savikataaq said it is not simply a dark chapter in Canadian history, but continues to be a painful reality for all First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

”In order to move forward, all Canadians must face these horrors, learn the truth, demand justice and work toward meaningful reconciliation on our terms,” he said in a statement.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister on Sunday called the discovery of the mass grave “horrifying.” Flags at that province’s legislature and Memorial Park would be lowered to honour the lives lost, he said.

“We must all remain committed to righting this historic wrong and to ensure that it is never allowed to happen again,” he said.

Mayors of communities across Ontario, including Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga and Brampton, also ordered flags lowered.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said city flags would stay lowered for nine days — 215 hours — to represent each life.

“This is a heartbreaking reminder of the terrible and shameful legacy of residential schools and the thousands of innocent children who died,” Tory said in a statement. “We know this discovery will also be difficult for survivors of the residential school system and a reminder of the trauma they endured.”

Mayor Bonnie Crombie of Mississauga, Ont., said she had also requested city flags be lowered: “I echo the calls for a national day of mourning,” she said in a statement.

In British Columbia, the province’s teachers federation said it would organize “orange shirt walk-ins” to honour the 215 children.

“We are also asking school districts to lower all flags to half-mast,” the union said.

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