Warning: This story discusses residential schools and the abuses suffered there.
SALMON ARM, B.C.—As word began to trickle out late last week about the discovery of more than 200 children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., an emergency virtual conference call was convened with Indigenous leaders across the south-central part of the province.
One of the things that stands out most for meeting chair Wayne Christian, tribal chief of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, besides the grim toll, was the quivering voices — from Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Kamloops Indian Band who gave the debriefing, to the stunned chiefs who couldn’t believe what they were being told.
“I get emotional right now thinking about it,” Christian said.
“It was all of us. Our voices were broken when we tried to speak … because of the horrific nature of this.”
Even the specialist in ground-penetrating radar who had been hired to carry out the search at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, a mother herself, had “wept continuously,” Christian said the chiefs were told.
“It had a real impact on her. I just hope she’s looked after,” he said. “I can’t imagine. I probably wouldn’t have been able to complete it.”
The Star spoke to Christian on Tuesday in a park in Salmon Arm, just east of Kamloops, where he had attended a dedication ceremony for the unveiling of a new trailhead marker — a collaboration between members of local Indigenous groups and schoolchildren.
He said he struggled to find his composure as he dedicated part of his remarks to the Kamloops discovery.
Christian, whose mother attended the school, said survivors have carried the burden of residential schools for far too long.
Gesturing at the trail behind him, he said he hoped the renewed exposure of residential schools’ dark legacy will help forge a “new path for Canada and for us.”
In the handful of days since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed that a preliminary report indicated the remains of 215 children are buried near the former Roman Catholic Church-run school — which had been one of the largest in the residential school system — chiefs across a region filled with rolling hills and sparkling lakes have banded together in shared resolve.
Amidst expressions of anger, Christian said, area chiefs have jumped in to ask “How can we help?” and “Where do we send money for donation?”
“It’s our culture kicking in saying, ‘What can we do?’” he said.
Details of how the search at the Kamloops school was carried out have not been explicitly detailed. A full report is expected later this month.
But in a recent interview with APTN, Casimir said more searches of the school grounds will need to be done.
“This is just one section that we had work done on,” she told the network.
In the meantime, Christian said, the Kamloops band needs to be provided whatever support is necessary to ensure the site is thoroughly searched and that the remains are properly honoured and repatriated to their respective families.
“There should be no questions asked. It should be: ‘What do you need? How can we provide them?’”
The same goes with all the other residential school sites in the province and the country. Preliminary inquiries, he said, have been made with forensic specialists in DNA tracing and carbon-dating.
In the longer-term, the focus will turn to accountability, he said.
Those responsible for operating the schools — which he characterized as merely “facades” of schools — need to be held to account, he said, adding that outreach to lawyers is beginning on that front.
“If the perpetrators are still alive, they need to be held accountable for closure for our people. So what if they’re old? It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“If they’re not alive, there’s got to be a process to name names.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report previously found that Indigenous children at residential schools “died at a far higher rate” than children in the general population and that while tuberculosis contributed to many of the documented deaths, the cause was “unknown” in many others.
Cliff Arnouse, chief of the Adams Lake Indian Band east of Kamloops, says his mother, who attended the school and would help feed some of the younger children, would often talk about children who had gone missing and not knowing what had happened to them.
Some family members, he acknowledged, were skeptical when she’d bring it up.
“That’s something I wish I’d paid more attention to,” said Arnouse, who also attended the school in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Talking to the Star from a local bakery in the small village of Chase, the soft-spoken chief said it’s become abundantly clear that the loss of life at the schools and the failure to properly document them is a matter of national concern.
Public officials can’t just wait for the news cycle to end and move on, he said. Expressions of regret, the flying of flags at half mast and “fluffy” political talk is not what’s needed.
“Concrete measures are needed — now.”
He pulled out a sheet of paper with several points he had typed earlier that morning: Ensure unmarked mass gravesites are properly protected; recognize that these sites represent a violation of “last rites” and a “denial of burial rights and respectful handling of human remains of our people;” investigate these sites according to human rights standards; and support and empower families of the dead children and survivors of residential schools.
In a statement earlier this week, Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc band, echoed those remarks, asking “all Canadians to reacquaint themselves with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report and Calls to Action — upholding the heavy lifting already done by the survivors, intergenerational survivors and the TRC. In addition, to show your solidarity, we encourage you to wear an orange shirt and start conversations with your neighbours about why you are doing so.”
In her interview with APTN, she explained the reason why the band has chosen not to tear down the red-brick building that housed the Kamloops residential school.
“We’re not going to wipe away that history. We’re not going to forget that history. Most important for us is knowing who we are, where we came from and why we’re so resilient.”
Not forgetting the dark moments of our history is a theme Christian shared in his remarks at the trailhead dedication Tuesday.
“I do apologize if I’ve offended anybody, because I speak from the heart,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve been trained … to speak the truth.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan