British Columbia

Work underway for forensic experts to identify, repatriate children's remains from B.C. residential school

Plans are being made to identify and return home the remains of more than 200 children found buried at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia's Interior, a provincial Indigenous leader said.

Residential school survivors says news of the burial site confirms their fears

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops, B.C. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site, according to the nation. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

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

Plans are being made to identify and return home the remains of more than 200 children found buried at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia's southern Interior, a provincial Indigenous leader said.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation wants to undertake the "heart-wrenching" process to eventually tell the stories of the children and bring peace to their families, said Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief.

The effort could involve the BC Coroners Service, the Royal B.C. Museum and forensic experts, he said.

Teegee said he has been meeting with Indigenous leaders from across the province to decide what steps to take next.

"Really, I think what needs to occur is perhaps some sort of discovery and perhaps some forensics about who these children were, where are they from if that's possible," he said in an interview from Prince George.

"And perhaps repatriation to their respective communities because the students come from not only the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc area but also neighbouring communities and as far north as Fort Nelson," he said.

'An unthinkable loss'

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

She described the discovery as "an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School."

A memorial on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery honours 215 children whose remains are buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C.'s southern Interior. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Teegee said he spoke with Casimir about the discovery of the remains and offered support from Indigenous leaders and groups from across Canada.

He said they discussed how to continue the search and provide supports to the Tk'emlúps Nation and those who may have lost a loved one.

'There were always stories'

Casimir said on Friday that more bodies may be found because there are more areas to search in the school grounds.

Teegee said the investigation may require working with the Royal B.C. Museum on how to best manage the area and it could also mean exhuming the remains with the goal of repatriating the children to their communities.

The main administrative building of the Kamloops Indian Residential School is pictured in 1970. (Department of Citizenship and Immigration- Information Division / Library and Archives Canada)

The discovery of the remains confirms the many comments from school survivors about children disappearing, he said.

"I think it speaks to those stories of those children who said, 'There were always stories of these burials, and whatever happened to this kid who went missing in a supposedly random way,' " he said.

Vancouver memorial

Several people gathered at a Vancouver memorial this week, where children's shoes and some dolls were placed on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. 

Gunargie O'​Sullivan, a residential school survivor who was at the memorial on Friday, said the news was triggering for many school survivors. 

"I'm lucky to say I'm alive," she said, adding that her mother was also a residential school survivor. 

Hundreds of shoes were placed on steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery by the Pacific Association of First Nations Women. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

O'Sullivan said survivors have repeatedly spoken about the deaths that occurred at the schools.

She hopes the memorial will help people understand the deaths were real, as is the trauma many survivors continue to experience. 

Searching the archives

Dan Muzyka, board chair of the Royal B.C. Museum, said his team is providing support to the First Nation by searching records held in the B.C. Archives for historical information related to deaths or burials at the school.

"The most significant, relevant records in the B.C. Archives are those of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order that operated the school," Muzyka said in a statement.

"The museum is committed to fully supporting the Nation through this archival research."

Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University, said each of her first-year law students at the Kamloops university spends at least one day at the former residential school speaking with survivors.

"I'm so grateful to the survivors who had so generously shared their stories," she said.

Schabus said she did not hear survivors talk about an unmarked grave area, "but they all talk about the kids who didn't make it."

Resurfacing wounds

Survivors started calling her Thursday when the discovery was made public, saying they can't sleep because the reports triggered horrible childhood memories, she said.

Teegee said the Kamloops discovery has shed more light on Canada's dark residential school history.

"This really resurfaces the issue of residential schools and the wounds from this legacy of genocide towards Indigenous people," he said.

The Kamloops residential school operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility's operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963.

Support available

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll-free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.

With files from Georgie Smyth and Courtney Dickson

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