Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be triggering to readers.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866) 925-4419. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society’s 24-hour line is available at 1-800-588-8717.
The archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver says that the church must remain committed to taking accountability for its action in running residential schools that ripped Indigenous children from their families.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller made his statement following the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s discovery of a burial site on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last week. While this particular site was officially discovered last Thursday, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said that there had been “knowing in our community” that a site like this existed.
The First Nation said that they had found the remains of 215 children at the school, which had enrolled as many as 500 children at a time. It was opened and operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 until the federal government took it over in 1969; it was then run as a day school until its closure in 1976. While some Catholic churches across Canada have apologized and acknowledged their role in the atrocities that took place at residential schools, the Vatican has never formally done so and Pope Francis has yet to comment on the Kamloops burial site’s discovery.
In her original statement, Casimir said that “some (children) were as young as three years old. 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.”
Miller said he was filled with “deep sadness” upon hearing the news.
“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring light to every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church,” he said. “The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”
Kamloops Bishop Joseph Nguyen said “no words of sorrow could adequately describe this horrific discovery.”
|Stephanie Gilpin, whose parents, aunts and uncles were sent to residential schools, looks at the shoes, flowers and stuffed annimals placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, 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., on Sunday, May 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Father Ken Thorson, whose Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran the school, also renewed his order’s apology after the bodies were discovered.
“The Oblates remain committed to humbly participating in ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for our role in this painful part of our shared history,” Thorson said.
Since the discovery of the burial ground was made public, federal and B.C. politicians have expressed sorrow and pledge support, while Quebec said it was open to searching its residential school sites for remains.
But in her statement, Casimir said words were not enough.
“To the Prime Minister of Canada and all federal parties, we acknowledge your gestures, but as a community who is burdened with the legacy of a federally mandated Indian Residential School, Canada must face ownership and accountability to Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc as well as all communities and families. Our community is still gathering all the facts in this evolving tragedy,” she said.
“Regrettably, we know that many more children are unaccounted for. We have heard that the same knowing of unmarked burial sites exists at other former residential school grounds.”
There were approximately 140 known residential schools across Canada, of which about 17 were in B.C.
|People form a circle during a vigil in Toronto on Sunday May 30, 2021, for the 215 Indigenous children, whose remains were uncovered on the grounds of a former residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia. The discovery of a mass grave was announced late on Thursday by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc people after the site was examined by a team using ground-penetrating radar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Approximately 150,000 children were sent to residential schools but Canada has never done a full accounting of how many died there. The final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released in 2015, records 3,200 deaths, noting that the death rate for children in residential schools was much higher than that of other Canadian children. In the early 20th century, children in residential schools died at nearly four times the rate of those outside the schools.
“The number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full,” the report reads. The commission notes further that records were destroyed, went missing and that the deaths of many children simply went unrecorded. Residential schools did not typically return the bodies of children who died to their families.
The government also kept poor and incomplete records of the deaths it did acknowledge; it did not record names for 32 per cent of the children who died, it did not record gender for 23 per cent of deaths and did not record cause for 49 per cent. Children died from a variety of causes including both physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, diseases and neglect. In some cases, the commission found that children took their own lives.
According to the Assembly of First Nations, only about one-quarter of the 94 calls to action from the commission’s report have seen “significant progress,” and little progress has been seen on efforts to find children who remain unaccounted for.
“We ask all Canadians to reacquaint themselves with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report and Calls to Action – upholding the heavy lifting already done by the survivors, intergenerational survivors, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Casimir said.
“In addition, to show your solidarity, we encourage you to wear an orange shirt and start conversations with your neighbours about why you are doing so.”