The discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School sent shock waves across the country and renewed calls for accountability for the thousands of Indigenous children who never returned home.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation made the preliminary findings using ground-penetrating radar, confirming what local survivors had said for years. As the community grapples with this “heart-wrenching truth”, it has spoken with numerous officials to determine its next steps.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir. “Our people, our families and our communities are at the centre of this pain. We’re all grieving, this is unprecedented, and we need to do the right thing – there is no roadmap.”
Operating between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took it over from the Catholic Church to make it a day school residence, the Kamloops residential school was once the largest in Canada. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was told 50 deaths occurred there, unreleased historical records have made it impossible to know what really happened.
“Survivors talked about children who suddenly went missing,” TRC chair Murray Sinclair stated. “Some talked about children who went missing into mass burial sites. We know there are lots of sites similar to Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future. We need to begin to prepare ourselves for that.”
Since the discovery, Father Ken Thorson of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic congregation that ran the school, has committed to transferring its books of daily records to the TRC. National Indigenous leaders are planning to visit the Vatican this November to seek an official apology from Pope Francis to all survivors and their families.
“It’s a very big part of healing,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. “Our missing children have not received the same dignity nor respect in death or in life that every human being deserves.”
Following the revelation, federal flags were flown at half-mast and mourning ceremonies sprung up across the country with many leaving tiny shoes and stuffed bears in memory. While Casimir welcomed statements of support from federal leaders, she insisted more than symbolic gestures are necessary to address the tragedy.
When the federal government pledged $27 million to help communities locate and identify those lost, Casimir pointed out this funding had already been allocated toward implementing TRC recommendations in 2019 but has not yet been spent. Several groups are now using similar ground-penetrating radar to investigate other former residential schools for unmarked burial sites.
“I know every school had a graveyard of some kind and we can only expect to see more stories like this coming out,” said Kisha Supernant, a Métis anthropology professor who has used this technology and other techniques to help Indigenous communities. “The truth is, we’re never going to find all the children. But I certainly am committed to using my expertise and knowledge, when communities want, to find as many as we can.”
Supernant explained that the first step is for communities to determine whether they’d like to participate in the culturally sensitive process and what outcome they’re seeking – repatriating the bodies, establishing memorials or identifying each child without removing them.
Complicating this work is the fact that many schools had students from multiple First Nations. At its peak, about 500 students attended the Kamloops residential school from communities across British Columbia and beyond. Death was a common result of the significant malnutrition, disease and abuse suffered by children at these schools and officials would often claim it was too expensive to send their bodies home.
Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, believes investigations should extend to other institutions where Indigenous children disappeared, such as day schools and “Indian hospitals”. Since the announcement, her organization has been supporting BC survivors connect with culturally appropriate healing as their initial anger turns to sorrow.
“Finding these remains is showing that [survivors’] truth wasn’t made up, it wasn’t in their head, it is as valid as they thought it was,” White told the Al Jazeera news channel. “Because these schools conditioned these children and continually told them their voice did not matter and no one would ever believe them.”
In 1937, the first residential school in Quebec was established at Fort George in Eeyou Istchee. Although these schools originated in Quebec later than elsewhere in Canada, another four were founded in the province in the following years, often coinciding with the displacement of local Indigenous populations for resource exploitation.
The Kamloops discovery brought back painful memories for residential school survivors and their families. With so many unanswered questions rising to the surface after all these years, some have speculated about what secrets the old Fort George school could be hiding.
“Way too many Indigenous families remain without closure on the death of their children,” shared Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash. “Years without answers, like my grandmother who had to wait decades to know where her first child was buried and what happened to him. There is no justice for residential school survivors and all those impacted without locating the children who never made it back.”
In honour of those lost children in BC and across Canada, Grand Chief Abel Bosum declared an hour of remembrance at noon on May 31. Wearing orange shirts “in solemn remembrance of the children we have lost,” Bosum gathered with his son, Ouje-Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum, and others in the community to commemorate the occasion.
“As I sit writing this message, with my keyboard soaked with tears, I pray for the souls of those innocent children who did not deserve their fate,” Bosum shared. “I also pray that we all renew our resolve to create a better world – one founded on truth, justice, compassion and love, and let hate not enter our gates.”