After days of pressure, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered flags flown at half-mast on all federal buildings, including the Peace Tower on Parliament in Ottawa, after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a residential school.
In a tweet on Sunday afternoon, Trudeau said the move is “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”.
Indigenous community leaders and many others had called on the government to lower flags across Canada after a First Nation in the province of British Columbia (BC) announced this week that the remains of 215 children had been found on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation chief Rosanne Casimir.
The discovery has spurred “a collective pain and trauma” for Indigenous communities across Canada, while also fuelling calls for concrete government action to address historical and ongoing rights abuses against First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded the country committed “cultural genocide” with its decades-long residential school system.
Between the 1870s and 1990s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools, which were run by churches and aimed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white Canadian society.
The children were separated from their families and barred from speaking Indigenous languages, and many experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse, among other forms of mistreatment.
Founded in 1890 and run by the Catholic Church, the Kamloops Indian Residential School eventually became the largest school in Canada’s residential school system, counting 500 children at its enrollment peak in the early 1950s.
“There is so much grief and trauma from the horrific news of the 215 children’s bodies being found,” opposition New Democratic Party parliament member Charlie Angus said on Twitter on Sunday. “I am pleased that the Prime Minister has agreed to lower the flags. But this just the beginning. We need answers. We need accountability.”