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Memorial marks 1 year since discovery of potential burial sites at former Kamloops residential school

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

It’s been one year since a B.C. First Nation confirmed the discovery of potential unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, triggering a deeper investigation of the site as well as more searches across the country. 

Today, the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation is hosting a memorial to mark that discovery and honour the children whose lives were lost while being forced to attend residential school, whom they have come to refer to as Le Estcwicwe̓y̓ — The Missing.

Preliminary information obtained through ground-penetrating radar in May 2021 showed there could be as many as 215 unmarked children’s burial sites near the 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.

On May 27, the First Nation shared the findings with the world.

memorial marks 1 year since discovery of potential burial sites at former kamloops residential school
People attend the growing memorial outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in support of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc people in Kamloops, B.C. in June 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“When I reflect and look at having to share with the world the findings of the unmarked graves, it was something that was devastating personally as a mother and a grandmother and as a leader,” Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told reporters during a news conference last week.

For Indigenous people across the country, the announcement didn’t come as news, as the abuses experienced at residential schools have been shared and detailed in oral histories.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has said based on death records, about 4,100 children died at residential schools in Canada, but the actual total is much higher.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a large number of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until it closed in 1978.

Up to 500 children from First Nations communities across B.C. and beyond would have been registered at the school at any given time, according to the NCTR.

memorial marks 1 year since discovery of potential burial sites at former kamloops residential school 1
A cross with a child’s dress hanging on it is pictured along Highway 5 in June 2021, near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, to honour the 215 children whose potential gravesites were discovered there a month earlier. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Monday’s event begins at 5 a.m. PT on May 23 at the Tk̓emlúps Pow Wow Arbour with a sunrise ceremony, followed by prayers and song throughout the morning. Song, dance and a feast will round out the afternoon, with a closing prayer around 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with Casimir and Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 Council members as well as  attend the ceremony. He is expected to speak with media at the event.

Pope, Queen asked to apologize

Since the findings, the federal government has committed more than $320 million to residential school site searches and support for Survivors and their families, although Minister of Indigenous-Crown Relations Marc Miller says that amount is “likely not enough.”

In January 2022, the government struck a deal with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to hand over thousands of documents relating to residential schools. 

Pope Francis has confirmed plans to visit Canada in July, and although he won’t stop in Kamloops, he is expected to make a formal apology to Survivors and their families on behalf of the church.

Following a meeting with Prince Charles on Wednesday, Assembly of First Nations Chief RoseAnne Archibald called on the Queen to apologize for the Crown’s role in the harm perpetrated by the Canadian government in her name, including the trauma caused by “institutions of assimilation and genocide in Canada.”

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: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.

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