Discovery of remains reopens Canada’s dark history
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
A former residential school in Kamloops, BC, is the site of a recent gruesome discovery. Preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds using ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School revealed the remains of 215 children buried at the site.
According to CBC News, the remains were confirmed by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir issued a statement about the findings: “To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths. 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.” The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc stated they are working with the BC Coroners Service contacting the students’ home communities, while also protecting the remains and working with museums to obtain records of these deaths. Further details pertaining to the preliminary findings will be disclosed at a later date.
CTV News Vancouver reported on June 4 that 51 deaths had been officially recorded. Records from the Kamloops Indian Residential School were donated to the Royal BC Museum by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary group, in 2019. The OMI managed the operations of the school, as part of the Catholic Church. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation claims the deaths of the 215 children discovered buried in unmarked graves were never documented.
The school had operated between 1890 till 1969 when the federal government took over operations—later closing in 1978. The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) stated the announcement of the children’s remains would affect Indigenous people in BC and the rest of Canada. FNHA CEO, Richard Jock, wrote in a statement: “That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families, and communities.”
On May 28, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) stated support and mourned alongside the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who is president of the UBCIC, also issued a statement: “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. Today we honour the lives of those children, and hold prayers that they, and their families, may finally be at peace.”
In the early 1800s, residential schools were government-sponsored schools that were operated by churches. Children were at times removed from their homes and forced to attend residential schools with the intention to assimilate Indigenous children to Canadian customs and remove their identity and heritage. When a child attempted to speak their own language they were subsequently punished and beaten.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, approximately 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada. Over 130 schools operated starting in 1831 until the final school closed in 1996. Tragically, many Indigenous children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse and many children died while attending residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined, as reported by the National Post—that 3,200 children died as students attending residential schools. Retired Senator, Murray Sinclair, who was also the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 till 2015, stated the true number of deaths could be as high as 6,000.
Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, offered his support and condolences on Twitter on May 28: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart—it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.”
In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to document the testimonials of more than 6,700 former students of the Residential School System. The TRC was part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history implemented in 2007. In June 2015, a closing event was held by the TRC in Ottawa where the executive summary of its findings were presented in a multi-volume final report. The report included 94 “calls to action” (recommendations) to advance reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. The most damning aspect of the report was stated in the first paragraph of the introduction: “The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’”
Murray Sinclair, in the Historica Canada segment, Residential Schools in Canada: A Timeline, says this about why he believes Canada should never forget the negative impact and trauma that residential schools caused for so many Indigenous children: “Many people have said over the years, ‘Why can’t you just get over it and move on?’ And my answer has always been, ‘Why can’t you always remember this?’ And until people show that they have learned from this, we will never forget.”