As It Happens

'There's got to be justice done' says chief calling for help identifying unmarked residential school graves

It's time for the prime minister and federal government to put 'words into action' and do more to help Indigenous people, says Kukpi7 Wayne Christian, as Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation presented its findings Thursday on the unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Kukpi7 Wayne Christian says the prime minister must live up to his commitment to Indigenous people

Chief Wayne Christian of Splatsin First Nation says the federal goverment must show it is serious about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, after Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc issued a report on burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Story Transcript

It's time for the prime minister and federal government to put 'words into action' and do more to help Indigenous people says Kukpi7 (Chief) Wayne Christian, as Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation presented information Thursday on the unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Ground-penetrating radar specialist Sarah Beaulieu said she identified approximately 200 undocumented burial sites but the number may be much higher since she surveyed less than one hectare, and nearly 65 hectares (nearly 160 acres) remain to be surveyed.

Christian is chief of Splatsin First Nation and tribal chief of Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. He's a Sixties Scoop survivor, and he told As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue his mother had gone to the Kamloops residential school.

Here is part of their conversation.

Chief Christian, what was going through your mind as you were sitting there listening to the residential school survivors, listening to them share their stories today?

Well, it's so difficult because my mother went to residential schools, to actually to Kamloops Residential School, so just thinking of my mom, actually. And then as most of the survivors have never told us the story of what happened to them, so that was going through my mind, as the survivors were talking because they were children when this happened, five, six, seven years old. And I was thinking, wow, that they had nobody to protect them and look after them. And that's kind of what was I going through my mind. And I just think there's got to be justice done for these children that have revealed themselves, you know, the 215-plus that are missing not only here, but right across Canada. 

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir speaks at a presentation as the First Nation releases a report outlining the findings of a search of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School property using ground-penetrating radar, in Kamloops, B.C., on Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

I understand even your mom didn't tell you the story until recently. So what was that like to to hear that from her?

Well, that's the thing. My mom never, ever did tell me her story. I just learned, she has passed on and she never did have that opportunity to tell me what happened. But I learned she went to the residential school and made a lot of sense to me in terms of her behaviours. And my aunts and uncles went and it made a lot of sense to me, especially around our language, because she could speak four Qelmucwtsin languages or four Indian languages, but she only taught me English.

Wherever there was a residential school, I'll guarantee you — also where there were Indian hospitals, sanitariums they called them — you'll find the same thing, unmarked graves.- Kupki7 Wayne Christian

Let's talk about the discussion today, the ground-penetrating radar specialist who spoke today said her investigation found 200 targets of interest, is what she called them. But she stressed that that was a preliminary finding and said there's still 160 acres that need to be searched. Do communities like Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc have the resources to do that huge amount of work?

I think that's a discussion with the federal provincial government right now to get those kind of resources, because what's happening on the ground with the survivors, many groups that are coming forward and saying, 'Well, there are people, children buried here, children buried here.' Because, it's again, the oral history of how our people transmit information, right? And it's been passed on. Some of the children they went to school with went missing. So they kind of can point out areas where they can help Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc pinpoint their work and where it goes.

But those are going to take resources. And I think that that's the important part, is that it's a combination of Western science, which is the ground-penetrating radar, and in our oral history of people actually telling these things. Because some people have never, ever told these stories.

And I think that's the interesting part for me, is that people are just beginning to speak and it's horrific. It's hard to explain to people a trauma, especially what happens to you as a child, never leaves you. It'll go with you to the grave, so to speak. And I think that's what people don't understand about post-traumatic stress disorder and the impact it has had on the survivors.

Kamloops Indian Residential School survivors Evelyn Camille, left, and Leona Thomas embrace after they spoke about their experiences at the school after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation released a report outlining the findings of a search of the former residential school property using ground-penetrating radar on Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Elder and residential school survivor Evelyn Camille spoke today and she said she wants the site to remain undisturbed once the science is complete. What kind of conversations are happening, Chief Christian, amongst community members about how to treat these sites moving forward?

Well, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc have a family council. There's a family council of 13 family heads, and they haven't had that opportunity to have that discussion. They're actually having a special general meeting this evening with the experts and talking about the information. The information is kind of released before the members actually saw it.

But I think [they're] going to have that discussion as to what they need to do, because it's not just people from this community, Tk'emlúps. It's also children from other communities and other nations. So there's got to be talk [about] how is this going to be managed if you want to repatriate and take those children home, how do we do that effectively, and with ceremony and all the things that are required.

What are you hearing from community members outside Tk'emlúps who would like to have their children brought home?

I think a big part of it is, because some of them have never told their story. And another part of this is we're going to do an oral tellings, where we're going to take, you know, the stories that the survivors have and record them again for their own use and whatever they wish to do with it, but to get more information.

And I think that's really an important part of this, is how do we then work with them to look after them and support them for up to six months to a year, to check in with them? Because a big part of telling the story is that it's hard if — I don't know if you've ever experienced trauma, it kind of comes alive in you again every time you speak about it and it doesn't go away, like I said earlier.

And so for the survivors to do that, we have to create the safety and the, you know, necessary mechanisms to look after them properly. So I think that's a discussion that's going on.

Federal, church records needed to identify lost Indigenous children, says B.C. chief

2 years ago
Duration 4:27
'Full and complete' disclosure of student attendance and other records is needed to help identify children who may be buried in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, says Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Chief Rosanne Casimir called on the federal government to share attendance records from the school. What message would you have for Prime Minister Trudeau today?

I keep saying that they have to take it much more seriously, put their words into action and really help us reconstruct the things that they destroyed through their legislation. I've always called Canada as a place where they use their laws to kill us, legislative genocide. And I think that the prime minister has a responsibility to live up to his commitments in terms of, the most special relationship is with the Indigenous people? Well, show us. Do something. You know, don't talk about it, do something concrete that's going to help not only here in Tk'emlúps, but right across Canada, coast to coast to coast.

Because wherever there was a residential school, I'll guarantee you — also where there were Indian hospitals, sanitariums they called them — you'll find the same thing, unmarked graves. That children were buried, people were buried and they were never identified. So it's coast to coast to coast. It's a national issue.

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others 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:

Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from CBC News. Produced by Katie Geleff.