Chief calls on feds to cut 'red tape' and find all of Canada's residential school burial sites
Discovery of children's remains in Kamloops 'confirms the oral history' of survivors, says provincial leader
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Terry Teegee says it's time for the federal government to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that makes it difficult for Indigenous communities to find out what happened to their children who went missing in Canada's residential school system.
The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced on Thursday that preliminary findings from a ground penetrating radar specialist have uncovered the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures.
Abuse and neglect were rampant in the schools. The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commission of Canada has found evidence that 4,100 children died of disease, malnourishment and more, but says the true total is likely much higher.
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. Emotional and crisis referral services can be accessed by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Teegee is the regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
Chief Teegee, what are you hearing in your conversations about how people are coping with this awful news?
Right now, everybody is just trying to comprehend, you know, the news of 215 found graves. We want to be clear, it's not one mass grave; it's individual graves that were found in and around the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
I suppose it wasn't surprising that there were these findings. But I think what is surprising is the sheer number of 215. And many people from all walks in life are just heartbroken and … angered as well.
You say it was not really surprising. I understand there have been stories for many years that graves would be found there. Was there any doubt that people would find these … remains at some point?
We've always heard of residential school survivors' accounts of children gone missing or children that were assumed [to have] ran away. And really, that's the finding. It confirms the oral history of residential school survivors who always had that question — that burning question — of whatever happened to this student or that student.
I think it's really part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which stated there's approximately over 4,000 unaccounted for. And that's really what needs to be done now is to continue to search for those children.
How has this news impacted you personally?
It's really heartbreaking. My older brother and sister went to Lejac Residential School and I heard many horror stories from Lejac. But also my wife's community here in Prince George-Lheidli T'enneh, they have relatives that attended Kamloops Indian Residential School. And some of my membership in Takla Nation also attended Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It hits close to home and it's really heartbreaking [that] 215 children didn't make it home. And it's heartbreaking, but at the same time, a bit of anger. I think this is a real opportunity for Canada to reconcile its past and also to start to really begin healing.
Having such proximity to this, seeing family members who are affected by this news, what sort of help do you think the community might need to support those who had loved ones at that school and just other residential school survivors and their families who are dealing with this news?
I think mental health is really important at this moment in time to try to have the support. I certainly know our First Nations health authority, First Nations Health Council, are doing their best to support survivors of residential schools.
Obviously, this is retraumatizing in terms of reflecting back on the horrors of residential school. So I think right now [we're] doing the best we can, but also knowing full well that quite possibly there would be more resources needed, not only here in British Columbia, but across Canada. And I'm seeing things about boarding school in the United States [with] very similar stories.
The children that were taken to that school were not just local kids. They were from across B.C., as I understand it. What kind of efforts are going to be required to learn more and identify the remains of these children?
I don't know. But really, it's up to the leads, to the elders, to those that are in charge, to plan out the next steps. And that's who really we're supporting.
I understand you've spoken with [Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation] Chief Rosanne Casimir multiple times. What is she telling you about what she is doing and how she is doing?
Chief Rosanne Casimir, Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, she is on my board of directors, and so is Kukpi7 Harvey McLoed, who is a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. And what I'm hearing is really we've got to acknowledge this.
The statement came out on Thursday, so we're very, very early in this finding. ... What I'm hearing from Kukpi7 Rosanne and from our council as well, is that we need to be careful about how we proceed on this.
There are calls today for an examination of all former residential schools in Canada. Do you support that?
Yes, I do. That's part of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to look for those unaccounted for missing children. And I know in the East Coast and Mi'kmaw territory that they have been actively doing ground radar search. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, FSIN in Saskatchewan, are planning to do ... ground radar searches in their residential school in Saskatchewan.
So whether it's supported or not, First Nations are actively doing it or going to do it in the near future. And I certainly support that. And I think we should do the same here in British Columbia.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised there will be concrete action following this discovery. What would concrete action look like to you?
I know there was some bureaucratic red tape barriers in searching for some of these sites or some of these old residential schools. Concrete action would be eliminating and cutting through the red tape. And then further to that is resourcing the First Nations, the communities in that are, to do some ground searching. That's concrete action.
And further to that is to really live up to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, which to some level, some of the recommendations have had some success. But overall, I think, there definitely needs to be a follow-up with the recommendations and follow through with those.
I see people talking today about being rewounded, about healing being interrupted by this discovery. Is full healing possible, do you think, given all that's happened?
Yeah, I think so. Acknowledgement that there has been a wrongdoing is a part of healing. Acknowledgement of our children gone, that is really part of the healing process. I mean, feeling angered about this and feeling, you know, heartbroken about it, is part of the healing process. So the concrete actions would really allow us to carry on with that healing journey.
And when we talk about healing, you know, it's not only for residential school survivors in our community. It's for this country. This country was born out of genocidal policies that were imposed on Indigenous people. So I think moving forward, that's definitely something that needs to be dealt with.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.