GATINEAU — Their anonymous deaths have been honoured and their names _ hundreds and hundreds of them — are finally known.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation revealed today the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools during a sombre ceremony in Gatineau, Que.
A 50-metre long, blood-red cloth bearing the names of each child and the schools they attended was unfurled and carried through a gathered crowd of Indigenous elders and chiefs, residential-school survivors and others, many of whom openly wept.
The list and the ceremony are intended to break the silence over the fates of at least some of the thousands who disappeared during the decades the schools operated.
“Today is a special day not only for myself but for thousands of others, like me, across the country to finally bring recognition and honour to our school chums, to our cousins, our nephews to our nieces that were forgotten,” said elder Dr. Barney Williams, a residential-school survivor and member of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation survivors committee.
“It is essential these names be known,” said Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which compiled the list.
Year of research was conducted on what happened to the many children who were taken into residential schools and never came out. Archivists poured over records from governments and churches, which together operated as many as 80 schools across the country over 120 years. It’s the start of meeting one of the 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report issued in 2015, which called for resources to develop and maintain a register of deaths in residential schools.
A total of 150,000 Indigenous children are thought to have spent at least some time in a residential school.
The 2,800 on the list are those whose deaths and names researchers have been able to confirm. Moran said there are another 1,600 who died, but remain unnamed.
There are also many hundreds who simply vanished, undocumented in any records so far uncovered.
Some schools have an extensive list of students who died; some list none. Moran wonders at such large discrepancies.
“Even our recent research efforts have uncovered another 400 students,” Moran said. “We know there’s many more students to be found.”
The age range is wide.
“Infants, three-year-olds, four-year-olds all the way up through their teenage years. We’ve got some students on this list that are named as ‘babies.’ ”
A number of national Indigenous officials spoke at the ceremony Monday, which felt much like a funeral for the many young victims of abuse and neglect in residential schools.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations mourned for the “little ones,” many of whom were buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves.
He called the deaths of the children in the schools a “genocide” — echoing the findings of the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which was released earlier this year.
“The residential-school system was a genocide of Indigenous peoples, First Nations peoples, forcibly removing from their homes and inflicting pain,” Bellegarde said during the ceremony.
“We still feel the intergenerational trauma of that genocide. We see it every day in our communities. But now we say there’s hope, because it’s not just (the term) ‘survivors’ we want to use. The people are … thrivers, starting to thrive, becom(ing) proud of who we are as Indigenous Peoples.”
Although the names of the victims unveiled Monday are public, the details researchers have been able to uncover about them will be restricted to families.
The work won’t stop, Moran added. The team continues to seek the names of the 1,600 others confirmed dead and to find some kind of resolution for the children who disappeared.
Researchers plan to return to First Nations communities to refine the list, fill gaps, and add as much as they can. Many, many graves need to be located.
They will also try to collect as many and as much of the stories behind the names as they can.
“That is the next phase — making sure that when we remember these children, we bring life to them and help understand what really went on. That’s got to be led by the communities and the families. We’re there to help.”
The work has been difficult and draining — “really, really harsh,” said Moran.
The team does what it can to make things easier — for themselves and the young victims they’re trying to identify. During the research, a ceremony was held that included everyone gathering in a circle and singing a song together.
“During the second round of that song, each one of us had to call out to our ancestors,” Moran said. “We called out their names, and the idea was that each one of those people would come down and help four of these children find their way home, if they were lost.
“It was hard. It was really, really, really hard.”