Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation is in the early stages of planning for the exhumation of the more than 200 remains believed to be on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to return them to their home communities.
The decision, led by a 13-member grassroots committee including former chiefs, councillors and elders, comes just days after the community marked the one-year anniversary of ground penetrating radar identifying the suspected unmarked graves.
“We all understand what it means to move the kids, to disturb them. There’s no one who doesn’t understand that,” said Ted Gottfriedson, committee co-chair and manager of the Tk’emlups Nation’s language and culture department.
Gottfriedson said he understands that not everyone agrees with the decision to exhume the remains, and that the decision was not made lightly and with the goal of healing.
“So that they can be properly buried and memorialized and taken care of in whatever way is appropriate to their people,” he said, “We’re looking forward to being able to reunite these kids where they belong.”
While not everyone agrees with the decision, several attendees at Monday’s memorial expressed support for the idea.
“I think the proper decisions will be taken but ultimately we have a fundamental human right to bury our loved ones at home,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
“When we find out, and if we find out, who the ancestors are then it’s going to have to be the people who decide how they’re cared for,” added residential school survivor Colleen Jacob.
The next stages of the process, Gottfriedson said, will take years.
The first stage of the investigation will involve an oral telling by elders who survived the school or who had family attend and whose friends or relatives disappeared.
Investigators will use that information to begin collecting DNA to try and identify the remains, Gottfriendson said. Only at that point will forensic archeologists and archivists begin their work.
“There’s no manual for us to follow, so we’re taking things slow. Literally. Our elders have told us we have one chance to get this right, and we owe it to those kids to get it right,” he said.
The process, he added, is being planned carefully so as to ensure both scientific and legal rigour, while respecting the Secwepemc people’s own processes and protocols.
“Once we take a little body out of the ground I don’t know how we’re going to be when that happens,” he said. “And we’re going to send that little person back to their community. There’s so much pain that’s going to be coming down the road for us.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged “support” for “whatever path the communities decide,” but stopped short of a concrete financial commitment.
Gottfriedson said the work to come, from more ground penetrating radar to archeological processes and DNA sequencing. It will all be expensive, and the federal government needs to make a clear promise to fund the work, he added.
“This isn’t a problem we created. These are the cards we were dealt and now we’re going to need help to fix our communities, to fix our people. And that commitment from the government needs to match.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.