Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Sorrowful reaction is pouring in following the discovery of more than 200 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in B.C.’s Interior.
On Thursday, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops announced that ground-penetrating radar uncovered the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
In existence from 1890 to 1978, and with a wide regional grasp, Kamloops was the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. One report says enrolment peaked in the early 1950s at 500 students.
Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, Tk’emlups chief, said the community “had knowledge” of the missing children, which she called undocumented deaths.
“Some were as young as three years old,” said Casimir. “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.”
In a press release, the B.C. Assembly of First Nations said it is grieving the location of the unmarked graves.
“The finding of these graves refreshes the grief and loss for all First Nations in British Columbia as we remember the fear, horror and desperation experienced by families and communities as their children were forcibly taken away to residential schools,” said regional Chief Terry Teegee.
“It was a dreadful time of forced assimilation and genocide inflicted by the colonial Canadian state for over a hundred years. Finding these gravesites is urgent work as many families continue to mourn the loss of their missing children and seek information about their fates.”
Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the news painful, adding “while it is not new to find graves at former residential schools in Canada, it’s always crushing to have that chapter’s wounds exposed.”
Marc Miller, Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services, said it was heartbreaking news, adding he spoke to Casimir “to offer the full support of Indigenous Services Canada as the community, and surrounding communities, honour and mourn the loss of these children.”
The federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, Carolyn Bennett, posted a Tweet with a 24-hour national crisis line that had been set up to support for former residential school students at 1-866-925-4419.
In an interview with Global News, Bennett said the discovery was heartbreaking, adding communities suffered when children didn’t come home.
“That is the kind of intergenerational trauma of their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that we see today,” said Bennett, adding “I think that, you know, the heartbreaking revelation of yesterday means that there will be more.”
Bennett added work at the site has been going on for more than a decade, “and that we know that that we will need to do more.”
Global News has reached out to several First Nations in B.C.’s Interior for comment.
The CEO of the First Nations Health Authority in B.C., Richard Jock, said the discovery illustrates the damage Canada’s residential school system continues to cause, even decades after being disbanded.
“This particular event may be seen as historical, but it’s also a continuous trend, I would say, of this power imbalance, if you would, that creates these issues for First Nations people,” he said, adding that the health authority will be providing mental health and trauma support to community members as the search continues.
B.C. Premier John Horgan also commented, stating he was horrified and heartbroken to learn that the burial site of 215 children had been confirmed.
–With files from The Canadian Press