Canada

First Nation considering whether to excavate unmarked graves at former Kamloops residential school

The First Nation released the final report on its preliminary findings and clarified that they cannot yet say with certainty how many children were buried

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The apple orchard near the KamloopsIndian Residential School was chosen for a search for unmarked graves because a rib bone and tooth had previously been found in the area, and school survivors recalled digging graves for classmates, the local First Nation revealed at a press conference Thursday.

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“We are not here for retaliation. We are here for truth telling,” said Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir. “We seek peace and knowing, as soon as possible.”

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc first announced in May that ground-penetrating radar had found the remains of 215 children near the former residential school in British Columbia, leading to a wave of mourning across Canada and demands for provincial and federal governments to re-commit to the process of reconciliation.

On Thursday, the First Nation held a media event to release the final report on its preliminary findings, and to clarify that they cannot yet say with certainty how many children were buried at the school. Flanked by orange flags, speakers discussed the discoveries and what the next steps will be, which include calls for funding and the release of records by the Catholic Church and federal government.

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Casimir said she was still awaiting a phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarding the search.

“We’re still waiting for you to reach out to us to acknowledge the latest truce, from the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” she said.

Radar specialist Dr. Sarah Beaulieu presents the findings on unmarked graves discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, July 15, 2021.
Radar specialist Dr. Sarah Beaulieu presents the findings on unmarked graves discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, July 15, 2021. Photo by Jennifer Gauthier /Reuters

Sarah Beaulieu, an anthropologist at B.C.’s  University of the Fraser Valley, who did the research, told reporters that ground-penetrating radar had found 200 anomalous spots in the ground over a two-acre space that were “probable” burial sites, given size and depth and east-west directions of the graves, consistent with Christian burials.

“We can never say definitively that they are human remains until you excavate, which is why we need to pull back a little bit and say that they are probable burials,” Beaulieu said.

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It is unclear whether or not the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc will proceed with excavation. Evelyn Camille, a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said she wants the site to be left undisturbed. But Donald Worme, legal counsel for the First Nation, said there are also those who want to see the people in the graves identified.

“We need to balance those competing interests,” he said.

Casimir said the community has “been grappling with the information that has been shared,” and alluded to identifying those who may be in the graves and, perhaps, repatriating remains.

“Now that the cries of the missing children have been heard, it time to show them love, honour, and respect. That means swiftly forming a team of archaeological and other technical experts so that the process may truly begin of confirming, identifying, and repatriating the children,” the First Nation said in a press release.

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“Every step that we do take moving forward, we’re going to be having a community consultation with our membership,” Casimir said.

Makeshift memorials placed outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5, 2021.
Makeshift memorials placed outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5, 2021. Photo by Cole Burston/AFP

There is also the possibility that more possible unmarked graves will be discovered at the site. Beaulieu said that only a fraction of the grounds of the Kamloops school were searched. The rib bone, believed to have been found by a tourist roughly two decades ago, and the tooth, which was uncovered during an archaeological dig around the same time, led researchers to search the apple orchard. There’s another 160 acres of land that could still be examined.

“There are very likely to be a number of human burials in the area,” Beaulieu said. “This investigation has barely scratched the surface.”

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Casimir called on the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated the school between 1893 and 1969, and the federal government, which took it over and ran it as a residence until 1978, to release student records, which could be used to identify students who went missing.

“We are loathe to put the responsibility of identifying those lost on the survivors of Kamloops Indian Residential School, who have been traumatized and re-traumatized already,” said Casimir.

They have also requested funding from the federal government for future research and are working with the Canadian Archaeological Association and the University of Alberta’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology.

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Residential school survivor Evelyn Camille speaks at a presentation of the findings on unmarked graves discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops.
Residential school survivor Evelyn Camille speaks at a presentation of the findings on unmarked graves discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops. Photo by Jennifer Gauthier /Reuters

Since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation first announced its findings in May, there have been more than 1,300 unmarked graves reported across the country, including in Cranbrook, B.C., and on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Over the course of the residential school program, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were brought to the schools. Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report on the impacts of residential schools, has estimated that as many as 15,000 or 20,000 children could have died in the schools.

“The residential schools were specifically built to take the Indian out of us, to take away our language, culture and traditions,” Camille said. “But that did not work … our culture, language, and way of life is still with us.”

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