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Canadians Call For Action After Remains Found At Ex-Indigenous School

NOEL KING, HOST:

The remains of 215 children were recently found at what used to be a residential school for Indigenous children in British Columbia, Canada. These schools were run mostly by churches. And from the late 19th century through the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous kids were sent to them. Many were victimized by violence, sexual abuse and neglect. Here's reporter Emma Jacobs.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Cultural genocide - that's the term used in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to describe the country's residential school system for Indigenous children. At the country's largest residential school, Kamloops, the commission counted 51 deaths, but many suspected that figure was an undercount. And recent ground-penetrating radar searches of the school grounds identified the remains of 215 children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSEANNE CASIMIR: It was shocking at every single level. And, you know, right now, you know, our community is grieving.

JACOBS: Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc said in a press conference last week that many families had questions about missing children they were told had run away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASIMIR: I'm a parent. I'm a mother. I'm a grandmother. And it was devastating to hear this, just to even try even imagining what other parents, mothers are going through.

JACOBS: Kamloops was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 until the Canadian government assumed control in 1969. It remained open as a day school until 1978. Across the country, Canadians have left rows of empty shoes in public spaces to commemorate the children who never got to grow up. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that he would meet with his ministers to discuss ways to support residential school survivors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We're not going to hide from that.

JACOBS: It was only in 2008 that the Canadian government apologized for the nationwide residential school program. Sol Mamakwa, a member of the Kingfisher Lake First Nation and a member of Ontario's provincial parliament, tearfully addressed his colleagues, calling for searches at more sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOL MAMAKWA: It is a great open secret that our children lie on these properties of former schools, an open secret that Canadians can no longer look away from.

JACOBS: In the province of Saskatchewan, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations has called on the federal government to finance ground radar searches of at least six additional residential schools. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS MACRAE'S "CRY WOLF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.