By Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A detailed report is forthcoming on the discovery of human remains buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, according to Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir.
On Thursday, May 27, the band revealed it had discovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children who were students of the school — which operated between 1890 and 1977 — using ground-penetrating radar to survey the area over the Victoria Day long weekend.
The band is still working with a radar specialist to complete a survey of the grounds and expects to find more remains, given that the initial discovery was made surveying just a portion of the property.
Tk’emlups anticipates having a full report ready by mid-June — one Casimir said will be shared publicly, but not until it has been disclosed to its membership and other local First Nations chiefs.
She said the band will also be looking into what it can do to repatriate the remains and honour the children found and the families impacted.
Asked if it will be possible to determine how the 215 children died, Casimir said it’s too early to tell. The band has said, however, some of the remains are from children as young as three years of age.
To the band’s knowledge, these are undocumented deaths, but it is working with the Royal B.C. Museum and other groups to determine if there are any existing records of them. The band is also working with the BC Coroners Service and engaging the home communities of students who attended the school to determine if any historical missing persons may be a match.
There are documented deaths of students at the school. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba has on its website a list of the names of 52 children who died while at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The list of deaths range in dates from 1900 to 1971 and are part of the centre’s Missing Children Project. The children’s names are not accompanied by their ages.
In a brief interview with KTW amidst a busy Friday as the news has garnered national and international attention, Casimir described the discovery as “unbelievable.”
She said the day following the announcement was spent sharing further information on the investigation with chiefs of the Secwépemculew and throughout B.C. and discussing what the next steps could look like.
Discussions with chiefs on Friday revealed that the home communities of students who attended the school stretched not only across B.C., but into the Yukon and Alberta, as well.
On Tuesday, May 31, Casimir said, the band will have a meeting with its membership to share more information with them.
“We know that we’re going to be looking at ceremony, having prayers and being able to support each other emotionally,” Casimir said, noting there have been many supports put in place for its members who were triggered by the news.
According to the band, there has been an understanding in its community that the mass burial site existed and work to confirm it has been done in the past, through digs and early versions of ground-penetrating radar — but that was cost- and time-prohibitive. Initial efforts were carried out in the early 2000s.
With access to the latest technology, a breakthrough finally came via Tk’emlups’ administration applying for the Pathways to Healing grant. This latest work was accomplished by the band’s Language and Culture Department, along with ceremonial Knowledge Keepers.
Following the discovery, chiefs from other communities that were host to a residential schools have contacted Tk’emlups for information so they can conduct their own ground-penetrating radar surveys.
There was an outpouring of sorrow and support on Friday as people gathered at Moccasin Square Gardens and at a memorial outside the former residential school building, where flowers were laid and nearby trees decorated.
Asked for her opinion as to whether the former residential school should be torn down, given its history, Casimir did not wish to answer. Casimir also declined to comment on the Catholic Church’s response to the discovery.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was opened under Roman Catholic administration in 1890 and was at one point the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. Enrolment peaked in the early 1950s at 500. In 1969, the federal government took over administration of the school, which no longer provided classes, and operated it as residence for students attending local day schools until 1977, when it was closed.