The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3, have been found buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school – one of the institutions that housed children abducted from families everywhere in the country.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a statement that the remains were confirmed last weekend using ground-penetrating radar.
More bodies can be found as there are more areas to search on the school grounds, Casimir said on Friday.
In an earlier version, she called the find an “unthinkable loss that was talked about but never documented at Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
From the 19th century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children had to attend publicly funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. Many have been beaten and insulted, and up to 6,000 are believed to have died.
The Canadian government apologized to Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual violence in schools was rampant. Many students remember being beaten for speaking their mother tongue; they also lost contact with their parents and their customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited this legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of the drug and alcohol epidemic rates on reserves.
A report released more than five years ago by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission said at least 3,200 children had died of abuse and neglect, and it said it reported at least 51 deaths at Kamloops alone school between 1915 and 1963.
“It really resurfaces the issue of residential schools and the wounds of this legacy of genocide against Indigenous peoples,” said Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Columbia on Friday.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” to learn of this discovery, calling it a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” that highlights the violence and consequences of the residential school system .
The Kamloops School operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over the operations of the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
Casimir said the deaths were believed to be undocumented, although an archivist from the local museum is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
“Considering the size of the school, with up to 500 students enrolled and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss is affecting First Nations communities in British Columbia and beyond,” said Casimir in the initial press release released Thursday evening.
Leaders of the Tk’emlups community “recognize their responsibility to care for these lost children,” Casimir said.
Access to the latest technology allows for true accounting of missing children and hopefully will bring some peace and closure to those lost lives, she said in the statement.
Casimir said gang officials were informing community members and surrounding communities who had children attending school.
The First Nations Health Authority called the discovery of the remains “extremely painful” and said on a website that it “will have a significant impact on the community of Tk’emlúps and the communities served by this residential school.”
Administration CEO Richard Jock said the discovery “illustrates the damaging and lasting effects that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and their communities.”
Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University, said each of her first-year law students at the University of Kamloops spent at least a day at the old residential school talking to survivors about the conditions they had endured.
She said she hasn’t heard from the survivors about an unmarked grave, “but they’re all talking about the kids who didn’t.”