WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Indigenous leaders and experts in British Columbia are calling for the protection of sites of former residential schools, warning that the bodies of 215 children found in Kamloops, B.C., likely represent just a small portion of the thousands more who died while the schools were in operation.
Linc Kesler, director of the University of British Columbia’s First Nations House of Learning, said it’s only a matter of time before the same type of technology used by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reveals more physical evidence of the horrors of residential schools across Canada.
“It’s absolutely not an isolated incident,” Kesler said.
On Thursday, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey uncovered the remains.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, agreed that the residential school sites should be protected.
“We need to make sure they are controlled and protected so full investigations can be done,” Turpel-Lafond said.
‘We’re all grieving’
B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said he too would like the sites to be protected — but bureaucratic red tape has added layers of complication.
Teegee said the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation started the process of finding the bodies 20 years ago.
He said it would take all levels of government to come together in order to remove barriers and provide the resources needed to identify and commemorate all the children who went missing while at residential schools.
“These children had a home. These children were loved by somebody,” he said.
More than 100 people gathered in front of a sacred fire at the site of the Kamloops residential school Saturday evening, standing shoulder to shoulder to grieve the children who never made it home.
Marie Narcisse was part of the crowd on Saturday. She attended the school as a child, as did her parents.
“So many times the oral stories of this place and many other places were told and it seemed as though nobody believed anybody,” she said.
On Sunday, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said there will be a debrief with the nation’s membership this week, adding that other chiefs across Canada are having similar conversations with their communities as well.
“We’re all grieving,” Casimir said. “There’s so many unanswered questions that our membership wants. The world wants to know.”
Casimir said the discovery adds a very dark chapter to Canadian history and the state-funded residential school system.
School closed in 1978
Narcisse and her younger sister lingered in front of the memorial at the site of the residential school for more than an hour.
In front of the school is a memorial with dozens of names etched on a plaque. At the base of it people have left flowers and notes. On top rests a tiny pair of shoes.
Historical records had indicated that 50 children died at the school, but this new discovery shows that estimate was likely dramatically low.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until closing in 1978.
Searching for records
Up to 500 students would have been registered at the school, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Those children would have come from First Nations communities across B.C. and beyond.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc said they are working with the BC Coroners Service, contacting the students’ home communities, protecting the remains and working with museums to find records of these deaths.
Casimir previously told CBC News the missing children were undocumented deaths, some of them as young as three years old.
She said the findings are “preliminary” and a report will be provided by a specialist next month.
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Emotional and crisis referral services can be accessed by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.