Windsor elder says grieving Indigenous communities need support, year after Kamloops unmarked graves discovery

It's been one year since the painful discovery of hundreds of suspected unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops B.C., an anniversary that is being marked in Windsor-Essex as well as throughout Canada.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Le Estcwicwéy̓ honouring lives of children forced to attend residential school

Theresa Sims, elder and cultural language specialist Ska:Na Family Learning Centre and Windsor's Indigenous storyteller, appears in a file photo. (Darrin Di Carlo/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

It's been one year since the painful discovery of hundreds of suspected unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops B.C., an anniversary that is being marked in Windsor-Essex as well as throughout Canada.

But the date itself doesn't hold any meaning for Theresa Sims, Windsor's Indigenous storyteller. She said it's because Indigenous people have known the truth of what happened at residential schools long before the Kamloops discovery, she said.

"We knew there were unmarked graves," said Sims, who is also an elder and cultural language specialist for Ska:na Family Learning Centre.

A display set up in wake of the Kamloops discovery is seen outside Ska:na Family Learning Centre in Windsor-Essex in a 2021 file photo. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

As Indigenous people continue to grieve those who never came home from residential school — with families waiting to hear if their loved ones' remains might be located — they need allies and support, said Sims.

With knowledge of Canada's true history comes responsibility, she said.

"How are you going to support us and how are you going to help? learning and educating yourself and your families," she said.

Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared the findings on May 27, 2021. Preliminary information obtained through ground-penetrating radar that month showed there could be as many as 215 unmarked children's burial sites near the former residential school, though specialist Sarah Beaulieu later said she suspects the number could be much higher as only a small portion of the site was surveyed.

At a ceremony on Monday, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said that residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors have been through "so many challenging and emotional, painful, retraumatizing triggers this past year."

"Far too many felt like it was a wound being reopened and that painful legacy of the residential school came flooding back."

The findings set off searches at other former residential school sites and more discoveries at the institutions, which Indigenous children were forced to attend for more than 100 years in Canada.

WATCH | Reflections on year since discovery of potential unmarked graves in Kamloops: 

Reflections on year since discovery of potential unmarked graves in Kamloops

3 months ago
Duration 6:11
A year after possible unmarked graves detected at former Kamloops residential school site, First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock says public attention to injustices has declined.

Sims, who is Mohawk, had family members in residential schools, including at one of the institutions where searches are currently taking place, the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont.

"Some of them, they never came home," she said.

She fears a cousin who has been missing for 30 years could be buried in an unmarked grave.

"Being able to finally say goodbye and let those tears flow, so that I can grieve and also start to heal, because when you don't have that person there, there's no closure," she said.

Sims said she would like the federal government to speed up searches she'd like to see done at every residential school site.

In wake of the Kamloops findings, the federal government has committed more than $320 million to residential school site searches and support for survivors and their families.

Caldwell First Nation to hold ceremony

Carrie Ann Peters, culture and language co-ordinator for Caldwell First Nation, expressed disappointment that after a year, the topic no longer is as prominent as it once was.

She said non-Indigenous people need to keep paying attention. 

"We have not stopped acknowledging what has happened. Those shoes still sit on our front porch every day," she said.

Following the findings, the community had a sacred fire in front of the Caldwell community hall for 215 hours, and then continued with it until winter came.

The community is holding a ceremony this weekend to mark the anniversary.

The sacred fire, which represents a safe space, will be lit this weekend, Peters said. There will be a feast and prayers for the children as well.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or 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.

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 Jacob Barker and Courtney Dickson