Okanagan First Nations are calling for accountability, stating their members are “shocked” and “profoundly saddened,” after the remains of 215 children were discovered in an unmarked burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the B.C. Interior.
The Syilx Okanagan Nation, which represents eight First Nations in the Okanagan, said the horrifying discovery confirms what survivors and families have known and feared all along, that “violence and abuse” far exceeded what was previously documented.
“The legacy of the Indian Residential School system has had devastating impacts on the Syilx Okanagan Nation that continue to be felt today,” Chief Clarence Louie wrote in a statement.
“The level of inhumane and criminal treatment of First Nations children at the hands of colonial governments and organized religion is deeply disturbing,” he added.
“We are calling on the province of British Columbia and government of Canada to directly address these atrocities.”
While the families, communities and First Nations process the unthinkable discovery, it is important to remember the intense grief that Syilx Okanagan people and all Indian Residential School survivors will feel over the coming days, weeks, months and years, Louie said.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief and council hosted an urgent chiefs meeting on Saturday, in which Chief Clarence Louie added “I want to thank the Tk’emlups Chief and Council for arranging this meeting and inviting us to do and share what needs to be done,” and affirmed that “the Syilx Okanagan Nation are ready to participate and support wherever possible.”
The Penticton Indian Band released a separate statement, stating it is shocked and sickened by the tragic news.
“These children were not given the dignity or respect for a proper burial and without family members there to grieve or send them on their journey,” the band wrote.
“Chief and council would like to express their heartfelt sorrow to all families, survivors and communities impacted by this unbelievable tragic discovery.”
As part of a collective, nationwide response, the Syilx Indian Residential School Committee is also asking that all members reach out to survivors and family members to check in and see if they need support.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Sunday that flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast in honour of the lives lost.
Trudeau said he has made the request, which will include the Peace Tower flag, to honour all Indigenous children who “never made it home’,’ the survivors of the school and their families.
The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest residential school.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said in a news release that the remains were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
The remains were detected and not exhumed.
Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner in British Columbia, said it was advised by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc on Thursday about the discovery of the burial site.
“We are early in the process of gathering information and will continue to work collaboratively with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and others as this sensitive work progresses,” Lapointe said.
Casimir said the band will also be looking into what it can do to repatriate the remains and honor the children and the families impacted.
A report more than five years ago by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission said at least 3,200 children had died amid abuse and neglect, and it said it had reports of at least 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone between 1915 and 1963.
-With files from the Canadian Press
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419