Content warning: this article describes abuses committed as part of the residential school system.
On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed the presence of 215 children’s remains in an unmarked grave at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir told the CBC that some of the children in the grave were as young as three years old.
The Kamloops residential school, which was administered first by the Roman Catholic church and then by the federal government, operated from 1890 to 1978. It was the largest institution in the local residential school network, and it is estimated that up to 500 children from all over the province were registered there at any given time. These schools were designed to eliminate Indigenous culture, in a process that is considered by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to be a form of genocide.
For years, Indigenous families have been saying that unmarked graves like this exist. Previously, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had listed only 51 deaths on the Kamloops site from 1914 to 1963, but community survivors knew that many more children had gone missing. In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission requested $1.5 million to find them, and Stephen Harper’s federal government declined the request. Now, there are increasing calls to carry out a nationwide search for these unmarked graves.
Although the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, Indigenous groups continue to face cultural erasure and intergenerational separation. There are currently triple the number of Indigenous children in registered foster care homes than the residential schools held at any one time — and Indigenous children make up 52 per cent of all children in foster care.
Haida artist Tamara Bell created an art installation outside the Vancouver Art Gallery to honour the 215 children. She told CTV that she hopes the memorial prompts people to understand the impact of residential schools, but she also wants it to serve as a means of healing.
If you or someone you know is in distress because of the recent news about the Kamloops residential school, you can call the Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 (available 24 hours a day).