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'Deepest condolences,' city halls, Coquitlam school board lower flags in memory of 215 school children

Tri-City residents, politicians, schools speak out on tragic discovery of the remains of Indigenous children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School; Coquitlam school district to lower flags to half mast 'until further notice'

Coquitlam school board and city halls across the Tri-Cities are flying flags at half-mast in response to news of a mass grave of 215 children outside of a Kamloops residential school.

Monday’s Coquitlam council-in-committee meeting also saw most of the elected officials wearing orange out of respect for First Nations families affected by the tragedy, and the meeting began with a minute of silence in memory of the deceased students from the residential school.

Meanwhile, School District 43 (SD43) and the board of education put out a message on Facebook, acknowledging the trauma and tragedy of the legacy of residential schools, while a letter to parents said First Nations leaders would be consulted about how to support Indigenous students, who number about 1,300 in SD43 schools.

“We would like to express our deepest condolences and honour those that died at residential schools and those that live with the ongoing trauma of survival,” SD43 wrote on Facebook. 

Flags will be lowered at the board office in Coquitlam until “further notice,” the post said.

The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada's largest Indigenous residential school.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a news release that the remains were confirmed with a ground-penetrating radar last week.

Now, Tri-City residents are expressing their grief — with posts on social media — and are asking people to pay their respects.

In Anmore, a resident is asking people to leave their porch light on at 6 p.m. tonight (Monday) and to pay respects to those whose lives were impacted by the tragedy.

“Over 7 generations of Indigenous families have and continue to be affected by this horrific and devastating genocidal act.  It is beyond heart-breaking,” writes Chelan Wilkins in Anmore Conversations.

Tri-City politicians also expressed their concerns on Facebook:

• Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov: “The two hundred and fifteen children whose bodies have recently been discovered at a residential school in BC show us, once again, that every horrific discovery like this uncovers a new level of brutality about our past.”

• Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart: “In recognition of the tragic discovery of the remains of some 215 children on the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, City of Coquitlam expresses our deep sorry and outrage at these horrific deaths, and at the system that allowed them to hidden away for decades.”

• Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West: “We are heartbroken to hear the tragic and devastating news of the remains of 215 children being found at a former residential school in Kamloops. As I lay here with my 4 day old son on my chest, I can’t even imagine the pain and suffering of these families. This discovery is a dark reminder of racism and violence against Indigenous people and the ongoing impact and trauma caused by residential schools. We send our deepest sympathies to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) and surrounding communities. 

Selina Robinson, B.C.’s minister of finance and Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA, also posted her personal thoughts, stating, “Our hearts are heavy. It is incumbent upon us to bear witness, to hear the stories and to empathize with those hurt by residential schools, acknowledging the multigenerational transmission of the pain, the loss and the suffering,” she wrote on Facebook. “This is the time to listen. It is also long past time to act.”

As well, some elected officials posted reflections on their lives, as Coquitlam Coun. Dennis Marsden noted how growing up in Williams Lake he played hockey against teams from “The Mission.” 

“We thought little of the impacts of these kids being separated from their parents,” he writes on Facebook. “It wasn’t until I was a little older that I truly realized that these kids were separated from their parents. Over the years, I have learned that this ‘separation’ was in fact forceful removal from their homes and I have truly been impacted by the stories of my FN friends and questioned what I saw as a child.”

“We cannot undo the wrongs of the past, but we MUST work alongside our FN brethren to stop hiding the atrocities, acknowledge them, admit the wrong doing, reconnect the families with their children long since past and swear to never allow it to recur,”  Marsden continued.

Meanwhile, union locals also posted their grief at the tragic loss of young lives at the Kamloops residential school.

“Unifor mourns the loss of the 215 children found on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory who perished in the custody of the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” wrote Unifor local 2000 secretary-treasurer Jennifer Moreau, on Facebook. “The discovery confirms what community survivors have said for decades — hundreds of children went to the school and never returned home. This is true of at least 6,000 Indigenous children who attended residential schools across the country,” Other comments included:

Bonita Zarrillo, Coquitlam councillor and federal NDP candidate, added, “The City of Coquitlam has all of their flags lowered to half-mast. Although I am a city councillor in Coquitlam I share this picture as a mother.”

Her council colleague, Trish Mandewo, wrote, “I cannot begin to imagine the wounds, the pain and the trauma that has been re-opened. My heart goes out to my Indigenous brothers and sisters as they process this tragic loss. I stand with you, your families and communities.  I mourn with you.”

And Anmore resident Brianne Cordick wrote, “I hope Anmore can come together and wear orange shirts tomorrow in honour of the 215 children who lost their lives due to residential school and to all those still missing ...spread the word!”

“My boys great grandma who is still with us today had to suffer through residential school when she was a young girl. This breaks my heart to know how they treated her and all the other children. She was one of the lucky ones to survive,” Cordick said.

— with files from Canadian Press