British Columbia

Indigenous leaders urge communities, allies to be mindful of 'space and pace' as they gather for support

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc and the First Nations Health Authority are calling on First Nations communities and allies to be mindful of COVID-19 guidelines as they grieve, following the discovery of possible unmarked burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir thanks people from around the world for support and condolences

A memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School honours the 215 children whose remains are believed to be buried near the school. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Residential school survivors, their families and their communities continue to try to heal following their experiences with the residential school system, which for many were amplified by the announcement of the discovery of what are believed to be children's remains buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last month.

On Wednesday afternoon, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said she and her community have received support from people all over the world. Officials say thousands of people have travelled to the community to participate in ceremonies and pay their respects. 

"On behalf of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, I want to express my deepest gratitude for the outpouring of support," Casimir said. 

"We stand strong because of you."

People gather on June 5 outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

That said, Casimir and the First Nations Health Authority are reminding people who want to support the community that the COVID-19 pandemic remains an issue, and members of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc are just now receiving their second doses of vaccine, meaning they aren't fully protected from the virus. 

On Tuesday, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc extended their local state of emergency for another 30 days in regards to COVID-19.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, chief medical officer with the First Nations Health Authority, asked people to continue to follow public health guidelines: be respectful when travelling to other communities, limit gatherings to 50 people or less, maintain physical distance and wear a mask when needed, use hand sanitizer and wash hands frequently. For anyone who feels sick, McDonald asked that they stay home and get tested for COVID-19.

McDonald emphasized the importance of both space and pace. 

"We need to consider our space in maintaining reasonable physical distance and mental space to do the work that we each need to do to heal, especially the community of Tk'emlúps," she said. 

She suggested small gatherings within peoples' own communities may not be as powerful as a gathering of thousands, but would be safer, more intimate and just as effective. 

McDonald also pointed out the need for people, particularly survivors and their families, to take time to heal. 

"We're in this for the long haul. There are many stories to come. There are many discoveries to come, and we need to prepare for a healing journey and we need to be able to coordinate our efforts with the community to come to support them."

The health authority urges anyone who is struggling mentally or spiritually as a result of the discovery and the ongoing news coverage to seek support. 

"Call for and participate in ceremony," McDonald said. 

"Please be cautious about the use of substances. We don't want tragedies upon tragedies. Make sure you always have a safe way to get home."

People attend the growing memorial outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Casimir said it's important for non-Indigenous people, many of whom are just learning about the residential school system years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings were released, to acknowledge the truth. 

"As First Nations people, we know our history and we bear the repercussions of that history," Casimir said.

"We need non-Indigenous people to acknowledge the history and the needed steps for healing from the intergenerational trauma and its effects."

A final report on the findings from the Kamloops Indian Residential School is still in the works, and is expected to be released at the end of June. 

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.