The Tk’emlups band is calling on the federal government and the Catholic Church to release attendance records of all students who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School as it prepares to begin work identifying what it believes is the remains of children in some 200 probable graves near the building.
In May, the band announced it had conducted a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey indicating the presence of more than 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former school, leading to international attention and outcry over Canada’s residential school system.
On Thursday (July 15) at the Coast Kamloops Hotel and Conference Centre, the band revealed more details on the survey, as well as its plans moving forward.
Tk’emlups Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said the band needs to form a team of archaeological and other technical experts to immediately begin the process of confirming, identifying and repatriating the remains of children buried on the grounds.
“We need to now give them the dignity that they never had. Those are our next steps,” she said.
Casimir said the band has been preparing a budget to immediately commence the work and called on the federal and provincial governments to provide ongoing funding to the band as it develops frameworks and processes for further investigation.
The band’s legal counsel, Donald Worme, told reporters Tk’emlúps is ready to conduct, as culturally appropriate, whatever type of excavations or exhumations are needed.
He said while some do not wish to see the site disturbed, others are calling for the identification of those buried.
“We need to balance those competing interests,” Worme said, noting the identification work will be done.
Elder Evelyn Camille, who attended the school, spoke on Thursday and called for the probable burial sites to bereft undisturbed.
Casimir said their community is grappling with the discovery and every step they take in the identification process will be done in consultation with membership.
Once identified, the band will also have to undergo the process of finding each individual’s home community, Worme noted.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was at one point the largest in the nationwide system, with attendance in the 500-range, and had students from across B.C. as well as from parts of Alberta and the Yukon.
While the local Catholic diocese and regional Catholic archdiocese have issued apologies and expressed regret and remorse since the news broke, Casimir noted no apology has come from the highest level of the church — the papacy.
“The Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly refused to accept responsibility or formally apologize for its direct role in the numerous and horrific abuses committed on Indigenous children through the residential school system,” Casimir said.
She said the church ran 70 per cent of residential school under the mandate of the federal government.
“We are not here for retaliation,” Casimir said. “We are here for truth-telling.”
Casimir said the next steps involve looking at student records, specifically attendance records, to identify those in the graves. She said the band needs full disclosure of records from the federal government and from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic order that administered the Kamloops school from the 1890s to 1969, then it was taken over by Ottawa until it closed in 1977.
Casimir said every student who ever attended the school are in those attendance records and she called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Oblates to provide the records immediately and fully.
“Those primary documents, currently within the custody of the Canadian government, will be of critical importance to identify those lost children,” Casimir said.
In June, the Oblates said their historical documents disclosure is not complete and has been hampered by provincial and national privacy laws. The order said it was seeking guidance from expert organizations on which documents can be released within the law and will disclose all it can and not block access to its records.
Casimir said she is looking forward to a “fulsome” conversation with Trudeau to discuss details of the federal government’s support in the investigation and access to student records.
She also called on the prime minister to connect with Tk’emlups.
“We are still waiting for you to reach out to us,” Casimir said as she addressed Trudeau from the podium. She issued an invitation for the prime minster to visit the band’s powwow arbour on Sept. 30 as it marks the new federal statutory holiday, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The national holiday was enacted in the wake of the discovery at Tk’emlups.
Trudeau recently completed a visit to B.C., during which he made stops in the Lower Mainland. Before that, he visited the Cowessess First Nation, visiting the site of the former Marieval Residential School — where 751 potential unmarked graves were found using a GPR survey — during a trip to Saskatchewan for a child welfare agreement signing.
Since the discovery at Tk’emlups, possible unmarked graves have been detected with GPR surveys at Marieval, the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in Cranbrook (182 potential graves) and the old Kuper Island Industrial School (more than 160 potential graves) on Vancouver Island.
Casimir said the band is also seeking to establish a healing centre and an oral telling project for residential school survivors, noting Tk’emlúps needs funding and access to experts “to bring truth to light and peace to the families of the missing children.”
In a statement following Thursday’s press conference, Premier John Horgan said he will meet with Casimir “when the nation feels the time is right.”
“We will continue to work with the nation to determine the best ways for the province to support the path ahead, alongside federal and Indigenous partners,” Horgan’s statement read.
He noted the provincial government has allocated $12 million in new funding for the research at former residential school sites and for the mental-health and cultural supports for communities that are critical for healing, and will be available for communities including Tk’emlups.
Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, president of the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA), spoke at Thursday’s conference via Zoom and noted the Kamloops Indian Residential School was one of 139 such schools across Canada.
She said there were also many more day schools.
“We are talking clearly about thousands and thousands of missing children,” Hodgetts said.
She said it’s unfortunate it took this science to wake the world up to the truth survivors have known for years and called on all Canadians to hold the federal government, other levels of government and the Catholic churches that ran the schools accountable.
Hodgetts said until there is real movement to implement the 94 calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, talk of reconciliation equals empty words. She said she feels funding committed by governments to date to investigate possible unmarked graves will fall short, arguing local First Nations should not have to foot the bill.
Dr. Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, chair of the unmarked graves working group with the CAA and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, said she is confident the findings at Tk’emlups indicate a number of highly probable burials and that it warrants further investigation.
Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week