British Columbia

Identifying children's remains at B.C. residential school stalled by lack of records

A lack of access to records and first-hand data would hinder the ability to identify the remains of children found at a former residential school in Kamloops, says the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Federal government, churches have refused to release school records for decades, expert says

Members of the Squamish First Nation hold a ceremony in remembrance of children who died at the former Kamloops Residential School outside of St. Paul's Church on the Squamish Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, B.C., on May 31. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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

A lack of access to records and first-hand data would hinder the ability to identify the remains of children found at a former residential school in Kamloops, says the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said the federal government and churches have fought over making the school records available to groups working to identify victims of the residential school system for more than 20 years.

"It's just so frustrating. It's so frustrating to the communities, so frustrating to the families and it's something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fought for every single year of its existence,'' she said in an interview.

The response from politicians and church officials that the discovery is "shocking'' rings hollow, she said, as Indigenous people have tried to raise awareness about the issue for years.

Indigenous children from 36 communities across B.C.'s Interior are recorded as having attended the Kamloops school, while data collected by the history and dialogue centre lists 38 additional communities from where children were sent to the school between 1943 and 1952.

These children 'have human rights'

Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and former judge who is of Cree and Scottish descent, said she's also heard anecdotal evidence of children from Alberta and Yukon attending the school, which had a peak enrolment of up to 500 students in the 1950s.

It was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969 as a residential school before it was taken over by the federal government to serve as a local day school until 1978.

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey conducted by a specialist in ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of around 215 children could be buried on the site.

A memorial is pictured outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. Preliminary findings from a survey of the school grounds revealed the remains of children buried at the site, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last week. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The work to identify the remains would have to compare sources including oral history, church records, records from local authorities and lists of children who may have returned home to their respective communities in one year but not the next, Turpel-Lafond said.

"To me, the dead children themselves in this Kamloops school, and others, have human rights,'' she said. "We have an obligation to them to provide respect for the deceased and take practical steps to address the indignity that might've been done to them and their bodies.''

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of 51 children dying at the school.

Missionaries refuse to release records 

First Nations communities are still battling the federal government and Catholic Church in court to access school records, Turpel-Lafond said.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran about 47 per cent of Canada's residential schools, including the one in Kamloops.

Father Ken Thorson, the provincial superior of the Oblates, said in a statement Thursday that the order is "committed to do more'' in making its records available. The order will work to draw the records of daily lives in Oblate communities, known as the Codex Historicus, together and make them available in a more accessible format, he said.

Thorson said that the expense will be covered by the Oblates and their work will focus first on records related to the Kamloops school, which are located at the Royal British Columbia Museum.

"The Oblates remain committed to participating in ongoing efforts towards reconciliation for our role in this painful part of our shared history,'' he said.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of the Vancouver archdiocese said Catholic organizations should release their records.

"We will be fully transparent with our archives and records regarding all residential schools, and strongly urge all other Catholic and government organizations to do the same,'' he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller offered a 'deep apology' to First Nations after the preliminary findings from a radar survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Archdiocese of Vancouver)

Even if that information was available, a forensic human identification expert said the community faces further hurdles in finding relevant DNA comparisons to identify the victims where direct descendants are no longer alive.

Megan Bassendale, the director of the Vancouver-based company Forensic Guardians International, said the process of DNA analysis takes time.

"It's long, it's expensive and it has to be done really well the first time. If you lose the trust of the families, then it's over,'' said Bassendale, who previously worked to help identify remains found in mass grave sites in former republics of the Soviet Union.

Complex process

Finding close DNA data, such as a mother or father of the victim, or identifying features from health and dental records may be hard at a site that operated for decades, she added.

Bassendale said it may require scientists to test DNA from a mother and father's family lines to narrow down who the person could be, which is a more complex process.

However, she is hopeful identities can be found.

"We know how to do this; it's not new. It's not even uncommon,'' Bassendale said. "It's uncommon for Canada.''

Turpel-Lafond said she's optimistic answers can be found, if groups co-operate.

"Can it be done? Yes,'' she said. "I'm absolutely confident [we could do it] if we had access to all of the records, government records, oral history and we have people co-operating.''


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.