Speech: National Gathering on Unmarked Burials

Press Release

September 8, 2023

Hello,

Before I begin, I would also like to recognize that we are gathered on the territory of the Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk). I offer my respect to the traditional custodians of these lands and waters.

I would also like to thank all of you for attending. I know that some of you are facing personal difficulties due to the wild fires impacting Yellowknife and communities across this country. Your commitment to attend and to listen to the voices of Survivors, despite the adversity you are facing, is inspirational.

I’m honoured to join you here at this fifth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials.

I am proud to be here with you today.

Everything we do, we do for our children.

…We work to build a better world for them.

…We give them a home, a community.

…We devote ourselves to their well-being as parents, grandparents, loved ones, friends or neighbours.

…We pass down identity, language, traditions and culture.

…We love them and they look to us to keep them safe.

All that we do, we do for our children.

Yet…

This country abandoned our children…

This country abandoned Indigenous children.

Our children were taken from their homes and forced into residential schools and into other places where they were forbidden to speak their own Indigenous languages… where they were stripped of everything—their culture, their traditions, their possessions, their family, and even their names.

This trauma burrows deep into our bones. Unending. Unyielding.

And for the longest time—too long—this trauma was buried.  Unheard. For years, the loss, fear and pleas from mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts and communities went unrecognized. Children disappeared at residential schools and other institutions, buried in unmarked graves, forgotten and erased. But they were not  forgotten by their families, by their communities, by their peoples.

Still today, there are those who deny the stories of residential schools, of abuse and neglect and racism. Even though residential school denialism is in the minority, it is nonetheless present. Denialism takes the form of attacks—online, through the media and through the desecration of burial sites. These attacks are attempts to control the story of Indigenous peoples.

Despite those that refuse to accept these realities, or maybe because of it, our voices got louder and louder. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission went across the country to witness and document this tragedy, sharing its findings and calls to action with Canadians.

Two years ago, a wave of the tragedy regarding residential schools hit the national consciousness: the precise locations of unmarked burials of children at a residential school in Kamloops. Other waves followed. Other communities made similar announcements: more unmarked graves of children that attended residential schools. These were innocent children whose stories will now be known. These children will never be forgotten again.

The work you are doing keeps their memories alive. Your work challenges denialism and false narratives. You’re listening to survivors and giving them a voice. Your work sends an important message:

We see you.

We hear you.

We believe you.

We support you.

Together, we move forward with a focus on:

Healing,

Respect,

Engagement,

Empathy.

It all begins with truth.

Canadians can no longer say “I didn’t know.” We now acknowledge all aspects of our history, both the good and the bad.

We can’t bring these children back. But we can empower ourselves to ensure that our traditions and communities don’t just survive, but thrive. I have seen what happens when Indigenous peoples advocate for themselves. As an Indigenous person, I am proud to be a part of this, both as governor general and throughout my career fighting for Indigenous rights.

Change is happening, even though it is slow. Progress is being made.

Last year, we welcomed the Pope to our land on a journey of penitence. The Pope came here to listen, engage and acknowledge the trauma caused by the Catholic Church.  We heard the words of an apology. The Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England did the same, apologizing for the “terrible crime” of residential schools.

How do we continue to engage people so that we move from listening to action? What comes next? Does peace come with these apologies?

The reality is that the world is facing many challenges.  Canadians are facing significant economic hardships, as part of their day-to-day reality. The world is facing conflicts, climate change and increasing natural disasters. Often these issues can be overwhelming and can lead to empathy and compassion fatigue.

In short, we are asking people to care a lot about many things, which can lead to emotional burnout.

Let me outline three steps to help address this.

First, take care of yourselves.

Working on behalf of children who lost their lives, or on behalf of families looking for closure, can be emotionally draining. We must recognize signs of stress and mental health concerns. We must all take the time to heal our own hearts and souls.

Healing is different for everyone. It is a journey, not a destination. It takes time. It follows its own path. But it does happen.

Second, make education a priority and share your stories as widely as possible.

Share the stories of the children who died and those who suffered. Each had a name, hopes, dreams, fears and joys. Each had potential that would never be realized. That is a loss for families, for communities and for our country.

Gatherings, like these, can be the best place to share those stories

I will take what I learn here and share it widely with Canadians, as I have since becoming an Honorary Witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2014. Find others who will do the same: teachers, parents, leaders, governments, businesses, organizations. Let people—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—help you carry this weight and spread knowledge.

Third, and finally, it is important to remind ourselves of what we have already accomplished.

We are further ahead than we were 5, 10, 20 years ago. We have seen the steps taken on the path of reconciliation, including:

  • apologies from the churches and governments who ran these institutions,
  • repudiation of the Doctrines of Discovery,
  • a personal meeting between His Majesty King Charles the Third and National Indigenous leaders to discuss reconciliation and a way forward,
  • and unanimous recognition by the House of Commons that the residential school system was genocide.

We have also seen the outpouring of support from Canadians as more children are located in unmarked graves. Families and whole communities are working together to find ways to honour the memories of these children and the sites where they were buried. And we are talking about next steps and what resources communities need, both in terms of equipment and mental health services. It is important to put mental and physical health together, as they go hand in hand. Without one or the other, it is hard for us to function.

A lot has been done. But a lot of work remains. When I look at this audience, particularly at the young people, I’m reassured that our work of reconciliation will continue into the next generation.

All of you in attendance need to be included. Your opinions and ideas need to be heard and considered.

Hope is a great motivator. And there is hope. I have hope. And I believe in all of you. You are our hope.

I mentioned earlier the importance of the following words:

Healing

Respect

Engagement

Empathy, and

Truth.

Let me leave you with one last word:  Peace.

…Peace for the families who can finally know.

…Peace for ourselves as we heal and help others to heal.

…Peace for the children who can finally rest, their stories safe.

I’m honoured to join you in your work, to share your story with Canadians.

Thank you.

IHT5

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