British Columbia

'This is heavy truth': Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc chief says more to be done to identify unmarked graves

A ground-penetrating radar specialist, along with Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders, on Thursday presented the findings of their report into the discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, saying approximately 200 potential burial sites had been identified, but the number may be much higher as there is still forensic investigation and excavation work to do.

Ground-penetrating radar specialist identifies 200 potential burial sites, says more land still to be surveyed

Federal, church records needed to identify lost Indigenous children, says B.C. chief

2 years ago
Duration 4:26
'Full and complete' disclosure of student attendance and other records is needed to help identify children who may be buried in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, says Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is calling on the government and the Catholic Church to provide records and resources as the First Nation continues to uncover potential burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

In a presentation Thursday, the First Nation renewed commitments to continue work at the site, where approximately 200 potential burial sites have been identified using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

"This is heavy truth," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said as the presentation began. 

Though preliminary findings in May indicated there could be as many as 215 potential burial sites, archeological reports about excavations and assessments done in the same area in the late 1990s and early 2000s prompted ground-penetrating radar specialist Sarah Beaulieu to revise that number down to 200.

She also said that number may go much higher eventually, since she surveyed only one hectare of a 65-hectare area and there is still forensic investigation and excavation work to be done. 

"We will follow the evidence as it is disclosed," Casimir said. "We will follow the science while we pay heed to oral telling survivors share with us."

Jaret Hamm and his son John place flowers beside a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 31. The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation released its report outlining the findings of a search of the site using ground-penetrating radar. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Beaulieu is a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., who has experience surveying Indigenous and city cemeteries. She was the first to excavate First World War internment sites in Canada and conducted the Kamloops survey between May 21 and May 24.

Along with Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders, Beaulieu on Thursday presented the findings, called the Kamloops Indian Residential School Le Estcwéý (The Missing) Report. 

Beaulieu said an apple orchard near the school was chosen as the survey site after survivors brought forward stories of being as young as six years old and woken up in the middle of the night to dig graves there.

During a presentation that outlined how ground-penetrating radar (GPR) science works, she noted that a juvenile tooth and rib bone were found in the area. She also said the length and depth of the graves are in line with what is typical for juvenile burial sites.

WATCH | Beaulieu on how the site survey was conducted:

Ground-penetrating radar specialist Sarah Beaulieu explains Kamloops discovery

2 years ago
Duration 8:16
Sarah Beaulieu, a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., who has experience surveying Indigenous and city cemeteries, explains what she found when she surveyed one hectare of an apple orchard at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where residential school survivors remember being asked to dig holes.

Beaulieu stressed that GPR is not necessary to know that children went missing at residential schools since there is copious oral history and documentation that confirms that fact. 

"Remote sensing merely provides some spatial specificity to this truth," she said.

However, she said that in her experience, approaching a decade of GPR work, "there are very likely to be many human burials in the study area."

After the discovery in Kamloops, memorials like this one on the stairs of the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 31, grew across the country to honour the many children who never made it home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'We are here for truth telling'

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until it closed in 1978.

Up to 500 students would have been registered at the school at any given time, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Those children would have come from First Nations communities across B.C. and beyond. 

Casimir said it is critical to ensure survivors are finally heard when it comes to the death of children at residential school. 

"We love you, we see you and we believe you," Casimir said.

She said while this is being referred to as a dark chapter, she wants Canadians to know that Indigenous people are living with the repercussions today. 

"We are not here for retaliation, we are here for truth telling, we are here today to honour the children."

Kamloops Indian Residential School survivors Evelyn Camille, left, and Leona Thomas embrace Thursday after speaking about their experiences at the school following the release of the report. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'I didn't learn anything there'

Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Evelyn Camille, who was forced to attend the school for 10 years, shared her story publicly Thursday. 

She said it was well known among students that children would run away, trying to swim across the nearby South Thompson River or run through snow during cold B.C. Interior winters. 

Camille said she doesn't classify residential schools as "schools."

"I didn't learn anything there. I went there 10 years. When I took the college entrance program, I had Grade 4 level."

WATCH | Survivors share stories of abuse, shame at Kamloops residential school:

‘I was ashamed’: Survivors share stories of abuse, shame at Kamloops residential school

2 years ago
Duration 3:09
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School shared their experiences following the release of a report detailing the discovery of some 200 potential burial sites near the facility.

Instead, she said students were forced to steal food to survive, endured physical and sexual abuse and were cut off from their culture, language and families.

"The residential schools [were] built to beat our language, culture and traditions out of us. It was meant to break up our families. We know our families were strong. It was meant to break up our communities. We had very strong communities," Camille said.

"These residential schools took that away from us." 

A woman in a red blazer sits at a table with orange flags behind.
Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir spoke Thursday, calling on the federal and provincial governments to provide immediate and ongoing funding and resources to help identify, document, maintain and protect the site.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Call for action from church, government

Casimir called for "full and complete disclosure" from the federal government and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic order that operated dozens of residential schools in Canada, when it comes to any information the entities have, in particular, records of student attendance. 

"We have a responsibility and the obligation to identify the unmarked graves found within our jurisdiction."

She also called on the federal and provincial governments to provide immediate, ongoing funding and resources to go toward identifying, documenting, maintaining and protecting the site. 

The prime minister, Casimir said, has yet to visit the former residential school site or reach out to her community.

She said she was "a little bit disappointed that I have not heard from the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself."

The B.C. government has committed $12 million toward research at former residential school sites, and for mental health and cultural supports for Indigenous communities. 

Premier John Horgan says his government will take guidance from First Nations leadership on next steps.

After the preliminary report was released in May, the nation said it was working with the BC Coroners Service, contacting the children's home communities and working with museums to find records of these deaths.

A cross with a child’s dress hangs along the highway outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at a growing memorial to honour the children whose remains are thought to have been buried on the site of the school. In May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced a radar survey of the site had uncovered unmarked graves. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Lisa Hodgetts, President of the Canadian Archaeological Association, agreed that communities taking on this work across the country should not have to pay for it themselves. 

"Every Indigenous community has the right to self determination."

Newly elected Assembly of First Nations national chief Roseanne Archibald said she is working "with urgency" on the issue of burial sites across Canada, looking for ways to help Indigenous people heal. 

She said she has spoken with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking for more funding and resources to go toward uncovering grave sites.

"As a people, we are hurt, we are angry, we are saddened by these recoveries," she said. 

"I know this and I have seen first hand speaking to people across this country. They demand action, not promises, not moments of silence. Our young people are expressing their rage and hurt by toppling statues and burning churches, but we must do more than tear down the symbols of destructive colonization."

Searches at other former schools

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at residential schools in Canada, based on death records, but has said the true total is likely much higher.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

The doors of St. Paul's Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon were painted in protest after the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation. (Donna Heimbecker/Facebook)

In the wake of the preliminary discovery in Kamloops, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which was in operation from 1899 to 1997.

Cowessess also used ground-penetrating radar to locate the grave sites earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if all the graves are connected to the residential school, which is located about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

Earlier this week, the Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands announced that more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves have been found in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children's remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used. 

The Williams Lake First Nation, located in the Cariboo region of the Central Interior region of B.C., is also preparing to search the site of another former facility, St Joseph's Mission, which is located a few kilometres from the nation's community core and operated as a residential school between 1886 and 1981.

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

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


Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools:

With files from Bridgette Watson, Bryan Eneas