There’s been a new discovery highlighting the horrors of Canada’s Indian residential school system.
With the help of ground-penetrating radar specialists, the leadership of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc have located the remains of 215 children who were students at the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir in a news release. “Some were as young as three years old.
“We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
This has been described in a news release as “preliminary findings,” with work continuing on the grounds of the former school.
“We are thankful for the Pathway to Healing grant we received to undertake this important work,” Casimir said. “Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond.”
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was built in 1890 and it was operated by the Catholic Church’s Oblates of Mary Immaculate beginning in 1893.
It was the largest institution in the Indian Affairs residential-school system, with enrollment peaking at 500 in the early 1950s. The Catholic Church ceased operating the school in 1969. That year, the federal government began running it as a day school until it closed in the 1970s.
In 1982, the Secwpemc Museum and two-hectare Heritage Park opened on the site. The Heritage Park is currently off-limits to visitors.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) issued a statement of solidarity, saying it mourns with the “Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Residential School Survivors and all First Nations.”
The UBCIC’s secretary-treasurer, Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, is from the Neskonlith Indian Band.
“As Secwépemc we are grieving our relatives, and all of the stsmemelt, whose lives were lost to the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” she said. “Though we knew that many children never returned home, and their families were left without answers, this confirmation brings a particular heaviness to our hearts and our spirits all throughout Secwépemculecw.
“I hold my hands up to Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, and to the people of Tk’emlúps, for undertaking this difficult but critical work to identify and honour each of the spirits who were lost to this institution of state sanctioned genocide, and the ongoing work to bring closure and healing to their families and communities,” Wilson continued. “We stand beside you in prayer, and in honouring each and every one of them”.
The president of the UBCIC, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, also expressed his condolences.
“There are no words to express the deep mourning that we feel as First Nations people, and as survivors, when we hear an announcement like this. These were children – all belonging to a family and community, and a Nation – who were forcibly stolen from their homes under the authority of the Canadian government, and never returned,” he said.
“We call upon Canada, and all of those who call yourselves Canadians, to witness and recognize the truth of our collective history,” Phillip continued. “This is the reality of the genocide that was, and is, inflicted upon us as Indigenous peoples by the colonial state. Today we honour the lives of those children, and hold prayers that they, and their families, may finally be at peace.”
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller described the news of the children’s deaths as “absolutely heartbreaking.”
“I spoke to Kukpi7 Casmir this evening to offer the full support of Indigenous Services Canada as the community, and surrounding communities, honour and mourn the loss of these children,” Miller tweeted.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde reminded his followers on Twitter that there is a 24-hour National Crisis Line for those who need to access emotional and crisis referral services.
You can access the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, set up to provide support for former Residential School students and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 24-Hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419— Perry Bellegarde (@perrybellegarde) May 28, 2021
According to the Indian Residential School HIstory & Dialogue Centre, the students’ home communities were Neskainlith, North Thompson, Kamloops, Pavilion, Penticton, Adam’s Lake, Bonaparte, Fountain, Douglas Lake, Okanagan, Quilchena, Shulus, Little Shuswap, Coldwater, Lake Nicola, Bridge River, Enderby, Deadman’s Cr., Hope, Leon’s Creek, Cayoose, Salmon River, Canoe Creek, Lillooet, Mount Currie (Lilwat Nation), D’Arcy (Nquatqua), Seabird Island, Skwah, Kamloops, Union Bar, Head of Lake, Deroche, Spuzzum, Shalalth and Spalumcheen.
The leadership of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc believes that students came from other communities not mentioned in this list.
“We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended are duly informed,” Casimir said.
Many children didn’t survive these schools
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) documented the deaths of more than 6,000 children in residential schools, though it suggested that the figure was probably higher. Approximately 150,000 students were put in these schools over the life of the program from 1883 until 1996.
According to the TRC, the chance of a child dying in a residential school was higher than it was for those serving in Canada’s military in the Second World War.
Parents who refused to send their children to Indian residential schools were threatened with prison terms. That’s because under the policy known as “aggressive assimilation,” Indigenous children between seven and 16 were required to attend.
Students were severely punished if they spoke their languages on the premises and were prohibited from engaging in their traditional cultural and spiritual practices. In addition, there was widespread sexual abuse in these schools. Most of them had closed by the end of the 1970s, though a dozen remained open in 1979.
This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.