'We do not want this to be hidden': Remains of 215 children discovered on site of former residential school
TORONTO -- The remains of 215 children, some as young as three, discovered at the site of a former residential school is a horrifying reminder of the abuses against Indigenous people in Canada, says a B.C. chief.
The graves were uncovered on the property of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. after a preliminary survey of the lands was ordered.
The discovery was made last weekend where the former Kamloops Indian Residential School once stood.
“When I arrived, I was taken back. I was shocked,” Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir, told CTV News on Friday.
Upon arriving at the site, she was overwhelmed by the pegs she saw in the ground marking the graves.
“When it was shared with me that these were children, our children, from our community...It was devastating,” she added.
It was a Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc member’s passion to find the missing children from the former residential school that brought about the resolve to find them.
“It was an absolute determination to find them,” said Chief Casimir.
While many Indigenous people across the country mourn, Chief Casimir said it is important that Canadians know about the history of residential schools.
“We do not want this to be hidden. We want this to come to resolve, we want people to know that this history is real, the loss of the children is real,” she said. “For our community, our people, our nation, we just want everyone to acknowledge the history that is there.”
The Secwepemc Nation says they're now their caretakers and will work to identify the children.
This isn’t the only school where Indigenous children met their deaths from abuse and neglect.
“There are residential school burial sites all over Canada, some of which have yet to be discovered,” Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told CTV News Channel on Friday.
And the Canadian government knew about the deaths in residential schools but did nothing to stop it, she added.
“As early as 1904, the government of Canada knew that its unequal provision of health care funding was contributing to the death rates of children in these schools at a rate of about 25 per cent. It was in the media and everything,” she said.
But the Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations was taken aback by the sheer number of childrens’ remains.
“This revelation, 215 [children], I think really speaks to all Canadians about that chapter in our history that really none of us knew about in school, and that now everybody knows and as we say, once you know the truth, you can't unknow the truth of this,” Carolyn Bennett told CTV’s Power Play on Friday.
Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, neglect, child abuse and malnourishment were some of the main causes of death for Indigenous children in residential schools, she said. Many of those who survived did so with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
The conditions of residential schools have become well known over recent years as survivors and their family members share their stories of neglect and abuse. Indigenous children in residential schools were no stranger to death.
“There are stories of the children themselves having to dig the graves for other children,” said Blackstock.
A survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School describe the discovery as “surreal.”
“It’s a real surreal feeling for myself and I imagine a lot of our families and communities,” Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band told CTV News Channel on Friday. “It was bringing to a realization some of our discussions that we had in school. And it was difficult, it is difficult. It's so difficult.”
He recalled hearing of children going missing during his time at the residential school.
“It was assumed that they ran away and were never going to come back. We just never seen them again and nobody ever talked about them,” he said.
“I just remember that they were here one day and they were gone the next.”
He had thought to run away himself, but after seeing the abuse his friends faced when they were caught, he stayed put but still faced a traumatic childhood.
“There was a lot of horrific things that happened to myself and I know a lot of other individuals that were in that school system, probably my family, and people from this community,” he said. “But it’s something that we never talked about, not until recently, and started doing our work to forgive and come back and live our lives.”
He said that hearing the news of the discovered remains yesterday made him realize how far he’s come since his days there as a young boy.
“One of the huge revelations that happened to me yesterday was me realizing my strength that I didn't know when I was a child, the strength for me to survive and walk away from that school and be here today,” he said.
“I always thought I was a weak man, but now I know how much strength I have to be able to come home and be where I'm at today.”
He hopes that himself and his community can move forward and find some closure after this gruesome discovery.
Chief McLeod isn't the only residential school survivor being hit hard by this news.
"This has triggered memories, hurt and pain," Jeanette Jules told CTV News on Friday.
She remembers feeling dread at the sound of footsteps in the hall, knowing what would come next.
"I would hear clunk, clunk...and it is one of the security guards...then the whimpers...the whimpers because here is the guy who molests people," she said.
Others wonder where else in Canada a mass grave like this exists.
"What is on my mind, if it happened here, has it happened at other residential schools" Shane Gottfriedon, former Chief of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, told CTV News.
But there’s more work to be done for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. One thing that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been pushing for has been for an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
“The Catholic Church has yet to do that, and to really accept full responsibility for reparations to families. So that's something that we need to look into the Catholic Church to be doing to accept that countability,” said Blackstock.
While the Pope has yet to apologize for the Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools, the Archdiocese of Vancouver shared his thoughts on the discovery of the remains.
"I am filled with deep sadness at the troubling news about the 215 children found buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring to light every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church. The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller told CTV News in a statement.
But it’s not just about religion, Blackstock said, there’s also a long way to go with the federal government who is fighting residential school survivors in court.
“We need to understand that the federal government, as we're sitting here, is fighting residential school survivors in St. Anne's residential school. That was one that had a horrible electric chair if you can believe it, where they would shock children, and yet Canada does not want to provide proper compensation to those children,” she added.
And this isn’t the only time the government has dragged their heels on reconciliation, of the 94 calls to action put out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, only a handful have been completed.
“At last report, just a few weeks ago, the report said only five of those 94 calls to action have been acted on so that's really pathetic.”
With a report from CTV National News B.C. Bureau Chief Melanie Nagy in Kamloops and files from The Canadian Press