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It’s been a year since the announcement of the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of what was once Canada’s largest boarding school – an announcement that for many Indigenous survivors was confirmation of what they already knew.
A day-long memorial brought dozens to Kamloops, BC on Monday to celebrate the anniversary as work continues at the site and to honor the children who never made it home.
A sunrise ceremony was held at the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Powwow site not far from the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It began with an opening prayer and included an emotional speech from Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir.
“What scientific research confirmed were the truths about our survivors and what they always knew,” she said.
“Too many kids didn’t make it home.”
PRIME MINISTER ATTENDS CEREMONY
The day, honoring children who were taken from their homes and never made it back, included cultural performances, dances, drums and speeches, and ended with an evening prayer attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Casimir introduced Trudeau, pointing to both the pain and resilience of boarding school survivors, their families, and their communities.
“We have been damaged by the onslaught on our language and our culture brought about by the forced removal of our children. We know that damage, but we also know what we’re doing to revive it,” she said.
Casimir stressed the need for all levels of government to support and advance the work of reconciliation and said she hoped for more concrete action.
Addressing those assembled, Trudeau faced some angry chanting before continuing his remarks.
“I am here with a simple message. We are here for you. We will continue to remember the children who never returned and support one another as we walk together on the common path of reconciliation,” he said.
“Some of the missing children would have been grandparents, great-grandparents. They would have been elders, knowledge keepers, and church leaders. It is up to all of us to remember them and honor their brighter tomorrows together, it is up to all of us to work together to ensure that every Inuit and Metis child of the First Nation grows up safely and is proud of who it is is.”
“LIKE A WOUND THAT IS OPENED AGAIN”
Casimir said it has been a year of pain for some, describing the announcement a year ago as “like a wound being reopened” but that it is also an opportunity for healing.
She said science will support next steps, but the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation needs time knowing the impact of the investigation on the community.
Casimir also noted the impact the discovery had on people outside the community and encouraged non-Indigenous people to learn more about Canada’s hidden history.
“The unmarked graves brought the truth to the world, and the world stood by us in solidarity and unity,” she said.
governor gen. Mary Simon was at the sunrise ceremony and she said simply, “You knew it. You’ve known it for so long.”
Addressing survivors and their families, she said the investigation had been called a discovery, but it was confirmation.
“You knew what happened here, the atrocities, the deaths, the loss. And the silence… And now everyone knows. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but finally people know.”
Drummers play and sing during a ceremony marking the one year anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of the remains of children at an unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC on Monday May 23, 2022 THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
(Ben Miljure/CTV News Vancouver)
The search area was determined in part by the discovery of a child’s rib bone and a teenager’s tooth and is the site of a former apple orchard when the school was in operation.
Sarah Beaulieu, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and a member of the search team, described what she found as “interesting targets” when she outlined the technical side of the investigation last July.
While the only way to confirm what is in the graves is by exhumation, according to the experts behind the discovery, the discovery was consistent with stories from school survivors, some of whom described being awakened in the middle of the night, to dig graves in the orchard.
Some of these children were as young as six years old.
Currently, the focus of the ongoing investigation in the Kamloops area is not on excavation and forensic analysis, but on ground penetrating radar searching of the remainder of the property, as only a small area of the property was surveyed in the initial study.
(Ben Miljure/CTV News Vancouver)
STORIES OF THE SURVIVOR
One of the people who attended school as a child is Clayton Peters, who told The Canadian Press that it was “the most terrible pain in the world to be a native then, an Indian”.
He and his brothers attended Kamloops School in the late 1960s through the 1970s and said he remembers thinking the children who suddenly disappeared were the lucky ones.
“I always thought that like me, they ran away, that they made it, that they are free,” he said, crying. Now he thinks some of those children’s remains may be hidden among those hidden under the orchard.
Before he was kicked out at the age of 17, Peters said he was regularly beaten and molested. Children who spoke their own language were made to eat soap, and they were also forced to scrub their bodies with lye to “take the brown off them”.
When children got sick, he said, they weren’t treated, they were put in a dark room. The room was also used as punishment.
“I’ve been sad all my life. When I left this school, I fought everyone. I’ve fought every white man who’s snapped at me. I was so angry,” he said.
Another survivor is Ron Ignace, who told CTV News last year that he had been beaten for speaking his native language but refusing to give up the Secwepemctsin language entirely.
“I was thinking on Secwepemctsin and speaking in English, knowing full well that they couldn’t hit me for what I was thinking,” he said in an interview on the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
He ran away during a vacation on his 16th birthday and said he was living proof the school system had failed in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as a campaign of cultural genocide.
And what happened then had a lasting effect.
“This is a difficult truth. It has been labeled a historical dark chapter, but indigenous peoples are very much alive with the impact they are experiencing today,” Kukpi7 Casimir said in July.
It’s important to remember that the Kamloops school is only one of 139 in the system.
Orange T-shirt cutouts are hung on a fence in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Discoveries across Canada
Many spoke about the deaths and disappearances of children attending school and other boarding schools in Canada.
The discovery of Kamloops marked a year of further investigations into school campuses across the country and demands truth, acknowledgment and apologies from both the Canadian government and the Catholic Church, which operated many institutions in the boarding school system.
The Pope issued an apology earlier this year and is planning a trip to Canada this summer that will include visits to First Nations communities, though none in British Columbia.
In her opening remarks, Casimir thanked church members, including a local bishop who is committed to working towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
“We know that many of our people still practice Catholicism. We all need faith, we all need hope, we all pray to one Creator, one God.”
With files by Ben Miljure of CTV News Vancouver in Kamloops, BC, Lisa Steacy and The Canadian Press
People are silhouetted as they walk past the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after gathering to honor the 215 children whose remains are buried near the facility Monday, May 31, 2021 in Kamloops, BC should be. The year since the Tk ’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had located the suspected burial sites in what was once an apple orchard, in one of Canada’s national accounts of boarding schools. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
If you are a retired boarder in need or impacted by the boarding school system and need assistance, you can contact the Indian Residential Schools 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-866-925-4419 or the Indian Residential Schools toll-free number of the Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental health support and resources for Indigenous Peoples are available here.