Hamlets and individuals across Nunavut are lowering their flags to half-mast and are leaving children’s shoes at their local Catholic churches following a news release by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation pertaining to the remains of 215 children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The residential school was funded by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and largely operated by the Catholic church. The news struck a chord with Indigenous people all over Canada, and Nunavut was no exception.

Businesses and government institutions also lowered their flags and issued statements on the development.

“The devastating news of the discovery of 215 children in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School leaves all Indigenous people in this country heartbroken and grieving with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation Community,” wrote Premier Joe Savikataaq in a statement May 30.

Pita Aatami, president of Nunavik’s Makivik Corporation, stated, “Each one of those 215 children had a family who loved them. Each one of them had been ripped away from those families because they were Indigenous.”

From the late 19th century to the 1990s, the Government of Canada helped operate residential schools in association churches. In those institutions, children suffered many atrocities, including physical and sexual abuse, and loss of language and culture after being taken from their parents’ care by either church or state.

The system was expanded into the Canadian Arctic during the 1950s, an experience many Nunavimmuit still feel the effects of today.

Thirteen residential schools operated in what is now Nunavut: in Chesterfield Inlet, Kugluktuk (then Coppermine), Baker Lake, on the Belcher Islands, Qikiqtarjuaq, Cambridge Bay, Kinngait, Arviat, Iqaluit, Iglulik, along with schools in Kimmirut, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

“The losses we experienced were to be permanent. The impact on all of us – my family, my friends and many of us who are now seem to be leaders of our people – was traumatic,” wrote former Nunavut commissioner and residential school survivor Piita Irniq. “Many of us have spent our lives trying, in many ways, to bring ‘meaning’ back into lives that were emptied of ideas, beliefs and relationships that for thousands of years brought meaning and purpose to Inuit.”

Inuit-owned companies also issued statements over the past few days, including Canadian North Airline’s president and CEO Chris Avery, who stated, “As an Inuit-owned company, we grieve with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation community and with all residential school survivors – sending thoughts of strength and love as we are also gripped with the ongoing trauma wrought by the residential school system in Canada.”

The Nunavut Association of Municipalities (NAM) proposed that all communities of Nunavut lower their flags to half-mast for 215 hours, for each one of the victims found, starting May 31, for a total of nine days.

Children’s shoes were left outside the Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Parish in Iqaluit as well as the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.

“Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous families live with the inter-generational impacts of the legacy of the Indian residential schools in Canada. My thoughts are with the survivors and our families. I hold all those that we have lost in my heart,” Iqaluit deputy mayor Janet Brewster wrote in a statement.

Iqaluit Coun. John Fawcett stated: “My heart goes out to all people who grieve over and continue to be affected by the atrocity that is the residential school system. As Canadians, we need to combine our efforts to demand action and reparations for all Indigenous people affected by these tragedies.”

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services issued a joint statement.

“The TRC revealed the heartbreaking details of the role that residential schools played in the history of Canada and the tragic legacy that continues today,” the ministers wrote. “It is said once you know the truth, you cannot unknow it.”

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