British Columbia

Residential school society has staff on site in Kamloops and on call by phone to offer crisis support

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) has counselling services available after preliminary reports that the buried remains of 215 children were discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations grounds.

Counselling services available in B.C. after preliminary reports of discovery of child remains

A mother hugs her daughter during a vigil in Toronto on Sunday May 30, 2021, for the remains of Indigenous children 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 who said preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey had uncovered the remains. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

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

In the wake of the preliminary discovery of children's remains on the grounds of a former British Columbia residential school, the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) wants survivors and their loved ones to know supports are available.

On Thursday, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey showed 215 children are buried at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School that was under Catholic Church control from 1890 to 1969 and then the Government of Canada until its closure in 1978.

As residential school survivors across the country bear witness to the news, Angela White, executive director of IRSSS, is concerned about the trauma it can resurrect and inflict and said people can reach out in person or by phone for help.

White said IRSSS staff are on site Monday near the former school grounds where a sacred fire is burning in honour of the children.

"Whenever there is a mourning or grief, there's always a four-day period of lighting a fire and so people are going there to mourn, do their condolences and receive emotional and cultural support from some of the staff," said White, speaking Monday on CBC's Daybreak Kamloops.

A monument honouring survivors is seen on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. on Thursday, May 27, 2021 (Andrew Snucins/ Canadian Press)

White said staff have been providing cultural support, such as smudging, as well as one-on-one counselling. White said she is worried about what will happen when the fire is extinguished, as Monday is its fourth day of burning.

"Our biggest issue is making sure that when they leave that site, that they leave in a better place and leave that grief at the fire," she said.

LISTEN | Angela White speaks about supporting residential school survivors on CBC's Daybreak Kamloops:

The First Nations Health Authority is setting up an emergency operations centre for Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc members and is working with IRSSS and the Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society, a substance and trauma treatment centre, to ensure support services are available.

"The cultural support aspect of the work is perhaps the most important," FNHA CEO Richard Jock told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

White reiterated that help is also only a phone call away.

"It's okay to be in your feelings at that particular moment, but it's also important to know that we have to find a way to get out of them and cope with them in a way that is healthy and not destructive," she said.

To reach IRSSS support services by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, call 1-800-721-0066.

A woman carries flowers on May 28, 2021 to be placed with 215 pairs of children's shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery as a memorial to the preliminary discovery of the remains of 215 children found buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

On Sunday, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said there will be a debrief with the nation's membership this week, adding that other chiefs across Canada are having similar conversations with their communities as well. 

"We're all grieving," Casimir said. "There's so many unanswered questions that our membership wants. The world wants to know."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had previously recorded and published the names of more than 60 children who died at the school, but Casimir has said to the nation's knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.

White said the government's preference to move children as far away from their parents as possible means it is also likely some of those discovered on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory come from other communities.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg, said White.

In a media release, IRSSS co-chair Rick Alec, a member of the Ts'kw'aylaxw First Nation, called for action specifically from the Pope. 

"Why are we always having to have a hand up saying we need to have the resources to mentally, emotionally and physically help the people that are in trauma?" said White.

White also offered advice to non-Indigenous people who want to stand as allies including advocating for social justice, writing to local members of parliament and supporting local organizations that support Indigenous people.

Above all, said White, use your voice to stand up against words and actions that cause prejudice and pain:

"Just don't be silenced."

LISTEN | Richard Jock on support services offered by the First Nations Health Authority on CBC's On the Coast

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has also 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.

With files from Daybreak Kamloops and On the Coast