LAC LA BICHE - A somber remembrance was held on Wednesday at the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Site to honour the lives of 215 children whose remains were found in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC.
The Mission, now a provincial and national. historic site just 10 kilometres from the Lac La Biche hamlet, was at one time the location of an Indian Residential School. Run by the Catholic Church and the federal government, the Mission's residential school, known then as Notre Dame des Victoires, operated for five years in the late 1800s.
The schools had a federally-endorsed mandate of assimilating the Indigenous students into Christian beliefs, removing their language and culture while educating them.
Students leaving the Lac La Biche residential school were transferred to other residential schools in the St. Paul and Saddle Lake areas that would eventually become the Blue Quills Residential School. After the residential school closed at the Mission, the classrooms were still used as a community school run by the Church until the 1970s.
The Métis Nation of Alberta organized Wednesday's event that featured guest speakers, traditional prayers and a commemorative lunch. A 215-seconds of silence tribute was also held.
Many of the Indigenous speakers at Wednesday's ceremony said that while it may seem troubling to hold a memorial for victims of the residential school system on the site of a former residential school, the site was selected because it held the spirit of the students. Many of the guests and speakers at the event had been students in the residential school system or had seen the direct affects of the system on close family members.
Métis Nation of Alberta Region 1 President Jim Cardinal said he had dreams about where to hold the event, and in each of four dreams, he saw a chair at the Lac La Biche Mission site.
The afternoon event drew about 200 people. Organizers hope the ceremony will help to bring continued awareness and support towards the residential school system's victims and survivors.
There were 130 residential schools that operated in Canada from 1831 to 1996. The residential school at the Mission began operations on September 1, 1893 and closed on June 30 1898.. It is estimated that 150,000 children attended residential schools. Records that are available, show that 6,000 students died at these schools.
The findings at the former Kamloops school have lead to a call for all former school sites to be explored for similar grave sites.
Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society President George L'Heureux says plans to examine the current site are a top priority.
The Mission Cemetery located adjacent to the site does have a marker identifying a mass burial site. The marker says it was used during instances of fatal outbreaks of influenza and tuberculosis. The burial site — about 20 feet in diameter, is circled with rocks.
Indigenous officials say federal, provincial and local governments need to reconcile the dark history of the residential school system. The region's provincial MLA as well as the members of the municipal elected council were also guests at the event, and pledged their support.