BC NDP

Heartache and outrage: John Horgan's remarks on the Kamloops residential school mass grave

On Friday, May 28 the world learned what Indigenous people have been telling them for decades: that residential schools, like the Kamloops Indian Residential School, were unrecorded burial sites for the bodies of hundreds of First Nations children.

The Kamloops residential school is one of at least 22 residential schools that operated in British Columbia from the early 1860's until 1984. Indigenous survivors forced to attend these schools reported emotional, sexual and physical abuse — terrible impacts whose pain hurts today. The discovery of the bodies of 215 children on the residential school grounds — some estimated to be as young as 3 years old — has ripped open wounds that never truly closed.

As all of us grapple with this horror and wait for action from the federal government, Premier John Horgan rose in the BC Legislature to speak and call for a moment of silence. A transcription of his remarks are below.

"I rise today with a heavy, heavy heart.

Like all British Columbians, I was horrified to hear reports of an unmarked mass grave on the grounds of the residential school in Kamloops. Although there are no words that can describe how that feels for survivors, words, it seems, must be spoken.

Today this house has an opportunity to look back over the history, the tragic history that is not just a moment in time, but a live history of our situation here in Canada and here in British Columbia. Because for survivors of the residential school atrocities, they live it every day. Their children are living it. Their grandchildren are living it.

This is not something that happened in the past. It is something that is going on right now. And the events in Kamloops over the weekend bring that home graphically to all British Colombians, all Canadians, and, indeed, the international community.

Survivors most assuredly feel grief. They feel heartache and they feel outrage.

Children taken from their homes and sent to who knows where without any notice were told they could not speak their language, they could not practice their culture. Oftentimes beaten, oftentimes sexually abused. It feels impossible to imagine in 2021, yet, that is the history of the residential schools in our country.

The Residential School Settlement Agreements in 2007 led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in 2015 made 94 calls to action.

Many of them are in the letters, the mandate letters of Ministers on this side of the house as they were in the mandate letters of the previous government. They're there because these calls to action are not just a nice thing to do. This is the least, the least we can do to try and do what we can to make amends for a period in time that lives with us to this very day.

I still remember the first time I heard a residential school survivor speak in public.

I was with my colleague from the 900 North Cowichan and we were in the Koksilah school, just south of Duncan here on Vancouver Island. An elder got up in the gymnasium. There were kids running around. There was lots of noise. That was a moment of celebration. But when the elder got up, you could feel the energy in the room change because every person in their young ones, other elders, everybody knew that we were going to hear a story, a story that needs to be passed down, not just for this generation, but future generations about what happened in Canada with indigenous people.

When I heard the story, I made a commitment at that time to do everything that I could as a student of history — I have two degrees in history and I did not know about the atrocities of residential schools from our public education system from two universities — I did not know. I learned it in a gymnasium from a survivor talking to his kids and his grandkids about what he had suffered.

I had the honor to be invited to Lower Post when I became Premier by the Takla, the Tahltan, and Taku River Tlingit to work with them, to get the federal government, to knock down the last vestiges of their residential school in Lower Post.

And I heard stories there, two elders — particularly one who could not join us in the basement because he could not walk down the stairs to relive one more time what had happened to him in that building.

At the time, the federal government thought it was a perfectly serviceable building, no need to replace it. Fortunately, fortunately, the federal government has changed their mind and on this National Indigenous People's Day, my colleague, the Minister of Indigenous Relations, and I will be going back to Lower Post at the invitation of the Takla, the Tahltan and the Taku River Tlingit to knock down that building.

And although I was very much looking forward to that moment, it is materially changed as a result of the events in Kamloops this past weekend, because it is not just a moment in history, as I often revert to, to protect the emotions that we all have. When we think about our children being torn from us by the state sent center, who knows where to be whole told, to be good white people.

Yeah. Unimaginable to us today, yet of very active part of who we are. It's on the 21st of June, when I go to Lower Post to do my part, to knock down the history of residential schools, I'll be remembering that the Kamloops and the Secwépemc have vowed to the people of British Columbia and Canada that they will determine who is there and how they passed away and will pass on those regrets back to the communities that were affected.

A courageous move by those two nations.

I thank them for the burden that they've taken on, but I want all of us to live with that burden because that's also the least that we can do.

Our children were not taken away from us. Our children were not told to not be who they were that happened to someone else.

But our responsibility as legislators is to make sure that the calls to action hard-fought are the least that we can do. And on National Indigenous People's Day, if you have the good fortune of being in a community with indigenous people, if you have the good fortune of having a relationship with elders in those communities, sit down, hear a story and be reminded, be reminded of the living history of Canada.

We're a proud people. We've done extraordinary things together, but we've also done atrocious things together. And collectively we have a responsibility to face that head on.And after the discovery of a mass grave in Kamloops, it's more real now than ever before."