The First Nations community that shocked Canada with the discovery of unmarked graves says school records will be critical in identifying victims – and that a much greater area needs to be searched to understand the true scale of the tragedy.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation released on Thursday its first full report on the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.
“We are not here for retaliation. We are here for truth telling,” Kúkpi7 (chief) Rosanne Casimir said at a presentation of the findings. “We are here today to honour the missing children in our caretakership who have experienced unthinkable circumstances leading to their death and whose remains were placed in unmarked graves.”
The report comes nearly two months after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had identified suspected unmarked graves.
At least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools across the country, which were funded by the federal government and run by churches as part of the campaign to strip the youth of their cultural identity.
Since then, other First Nations have reported similar discoveries at the site of former residential schools.
Cowessess First Nation in the province of Saskatchewan announced 751 potential unmarked grave sites last month and 182 graves were discovered near the St Eugene residential school in south-eastern British Columbia. Earlier this week, Penelakut Tribe said more than 160 undocumented graves had been found near the site of the Kuper Island residential school.
Casimir called on the federal government to release attendance records to begin the process of identifying potential victims.
“Every student who ever attended the Kamloops residential school is documented in those records,” she said. “We are loth to put the responsibility of identifying those lost on the survivors … who have been traumatized and re-traumatized already.”
Casimir also called on the Catholic church to release its records, taking aim at an institution that has faced growing criticism over its failure to compensate survivors.
“The Roman Catholic church has repeatedly refused to accept responsibility or formally apologize for its direct role in the numerous and horrific abuses committed … through the residential school system,” she said.
As part of the announcement, survivors of the school testified about the legacy of the institution.
Evelyn Camille, a Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc elder who was forced to attend the school, said many had long warned of missing children, but were ignored.
“Truth and reconciliation? I often wondered, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Do they want to hear the truth, really? We have tried to tell them the truth,” she said. “Who is going to listen?”
Camille called on the graves to remain untouched. “Yes there may have to be some studies to be done, but what good are those studies going to do for us?”
Only two acres of the site, an apple orchard, have been studied – a space that has “barely scratched the surface”, said Dr Sarah Beaulieu, a specialist in ground-penetrating radar who has worked with the community. An additional 160 acres – 647,500 square meters – still require surveying.
Stories of children as young as six being awoken in the night to dig holes for burials, as well as the discovery of a juvenile rib bone and tooth in that area, prompted the initial search earlier this year.
Only excavation and forensic study, however, can conclusively confirm how many children are buried on the grounds, said Beaulieu.
“Remote sensing such as [ground penetrating radar] is not necessary to know that children went missing in the Indian residential school context. This fact, this knowledge has been recognized by Indigenous communities for generations,” she said. “All residential school landscapes are likely to contain burials and missing children. And remote sensing such as [radar] merely provides some spatial specificity to this truth.”
• This article was amended on 16 July 2021 to use the appropriate diacritics for the name of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.