British Columbia

Investigation at B.C. residential school only just beginning, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc chief says

The chief of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation says its members have met with more than a dozen officials as the community begins a long, painful investigation into what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

'No roadmap' for next steps as community grieves, Rosanne Casimir says

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)

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

The chief of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation says its members have met with more than a dozen officials in recent days, as the community begins a long, painful investigation into the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said the community has spoken with federal and provincial ministers, a local Catholic bishop, Indigenous leaders and an independent expert from the United Nations in the week since announcing the preliminary findings.

"This is only the beginning and there is still so much work yet to be done," Casimir said during a news conference on Friday. "We're all grieving, this is unprecedented and we need to do the right thing and there is no roadmap."

The First Nation announced on May 26 that it had used the services of a ground-penetrating radar specialist to reveal what are believed to be the remains of children long believed missing from the school. Casimir told CBC News that, based on oral histories shared by survivors, the community believes some to have been as young as three years old.

The band's announcement touched off countrywide grief and calls for more searches at other such institutions. Casimir said the community is "deeply impacted" and needs time and space to grieve.

Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women hold a ceremony in Vancouver on May 28 in honour of the children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Our nation has been constantly collectively grappling with the heart-wrenching truth brought to light ... Our people, our families and our communities are at the centre of this pain," she said. 

Final report on radar survey expected end of June

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report on the residential school system detailed harsh mistreatment of Indigenous children at the government-funded, church-run schools, where at least 4,100 children died.

Casimir has said the band plans to release its final report from the radar specialist at the end of June.

Since the news broke, steady streams of people have stopped to pay their respects and leave flowers, shoes and stuffed animals at the memorial to survivors outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Casimir said the outpouring of support has been "overwhelming."

She said the old residential school building will remain standing.

"For us, it is a very huge piece of history that we do not want to be forgotten, but something that will be learned from. The history, the ugly truths ... for all the future generations," she said.

Incomplete records

Casimir said her community is working with the RCMP to investigate the potential unmarked burial sites but also told reporters she didn't want the public to lose sight of the history of the RCMP.

"We also need to declare that the RCMP forcibly removed children from their families to bring them to the residential school," Casimir said. 

In a statement to the CBC, Staff Sgt. Bill Wallace said "the Tk'emlúps Rural RCMP has attended the site, participated in meetings and will continue working closely with the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved in any investigative avenues explored going forward."

Some of the early investigation may prove difficult, however, because of a lack of records.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the government and schools did not record the child's name in about one-third of the deaths at residential schools. For nearly 50 per cent, they did not record the cause of death.

Further, Casimir said that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Roman Catholic congregation that ran the Kamloops school, has not released any records to the community to date.

"I have met with Bishop Joseph from our local Catholic Church ... this was just the first meeting since the news came out," she said.

Casimir said she is also following up on a statement made by the archbishop of Vancouver that he has already shared records with the TRC. 

Father Ken Thorson of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate said he committed this past week to transfer all of the congregation's records related to the residential school and make them more accessible digitally.

He said the missionary would not be releasing personnel files, for example, the names of the oblates, saying that is in line with the federal Privacy Act.

The records in the missionary's possession are the Codex Historicus, or books of daily records, documenting what was happening at the residential school from 1890 to 1969, before the federal government took it over.

Thorson said he hopes the transfer of the records will happen in the coming days.

In an email, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation confirmed that it already had some records from the missionary prior to recent developments and that the missionary is now transferring its main collection to the Royal BC Museum.

"We hope and expect to receive copies," a spokesperson said. 

As for the federal government, which took over the school in 1969, it said it recently pledged $27 million to help communities locate and identify those lost. However, Casimir said the money is not new but is funding the government had already allocated toward implementation of TRC recommendations that had not been spent. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation confirmed the funding was from 2019.

Casimir said that the cost of the current investigation is still to be determined. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.

With files from The Canadian Press