Survivors, families remember lives lost as children's remains found in Kamloops

·4 min read
Shoes are placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2021, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Shoes are placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2021, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Evelyn Korkmaz hopes the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia leads to the unearthing of more answers for residential school survivors across the country.

In Ottawa, survivors like Korkmaz, along with their families, are looking for ways to commemorate the children, seek justice and healing.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Korkmaz, who lives in Ottawa, but attended the St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., "We have lost friends and loved ones, classmates ... they didn't disappear into thin air."

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former residential school in Kamloops revealed the remains of the children — some as young as three years old.

The discovery of the undocumented burial site has shocked Canadians and validated previously discredited reports that such a site existed.

For several years, Korkmaz, who survived sexual abuse at her school, has been calling on the Catholic church and the pope to "take ownership" of the wrongs inflicted on Indigenous people who were in their care in Canada.

"We were less than human to our government and the Catholic Church. We were known as savages. But when you look at what they have done to our people, I would say that they were more savage than we were. So, yes, it's opened a lot of wounds," said Korkmaz of the Kamloops discovery.

Shoes are placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2021, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C.
Shoes are placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2021, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C.(Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

More needed than lowering flags

Federal public servant and Indigenous artist Heather Berry put out a call on social media on Sunday, suggesting people bring children's shoes to the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill to remember the 215 children.

Berry, whose mother is a survivor of Indian day schools, said she was "gutted" by the news out of Kamloops.

"I wanted to be able to take my grief and put it somewhere," said Berry. "So many other Indigenous people in this community, especially in Ottawa ... need a space to put that grief as well."

The flags on Parliament Hill, federal buildings and at Ottawa City Hall are flying at half mast to commemorate the deaths.

But Berry says more needs to be done than just the lowering of flags. She urges everyone to read the reports on residential schools in Canada by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Impact on multiple generations

Steven Thompson-Oakes thinks flags should remain at half mast for 215 days.

"And not only that, we should go investigate every other Indian residential school across Canada because we don't know how many other missing babies there are out there," said Thompson-Oakes, who is Mohawk and grew up in Ottawa.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded the deaths of about 4,100 children in residential schools in Canada, but said there are probably more.

Steven Thompson-Oakes says flags should be lowered for 215 days to commemorate every child recently discovered on the Kamloops site.
Steven Thompson-Oakes says flags should be lowered for 215 days to commemorate every child recently discovered on the Kamloops site.(Submitted/Thompson-Oakes)

After hearing about the Kamloops discovery, Thompson-Oakes said he was worried about his grandparents and went to visit them in Akwesasne on Sunday.

"My grandfather actually went through an Indian residential school," said Thompson-Oakes. "We actually dropped shoes off at our local church in St. Regis last night ... We need to make a bigger impact."

Thompson-Oakes said he dropped off another pair of tiny shoes to Parliament Hill on Monday.

"It's hit multiple generations, not just my grandfather's generation. [It] has hit my mother's generation, my generation, and it could keep continuing and hit more generations if we don't start this healing process," he said.

Makeshift memorial in front of the Ontario Legislature for the bodies of 215 First Nations children recently discovered on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, BC.
Makeshift memorial in front of the Ontario Legislature for the bodies of 215 First Nations children recently discovered on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, BC. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.