KAMLOOPS, B.C. — The stories from elders about death and mistreatment at a former British Columbia residential school are finally being heard by Canadians, says Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.
There is no road map for the grieving and healing ahead following last week's announcement of the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, but her community needs to know people are listening, Casimir said Friday.
"We need to communicate to our members because those truths from the history have always been talked about in the past and have always been shared," she said. "Now, it's come to light and now it's kind of the realization that someone's actually listening."
Holding a deer skin drum and standing in a field just below a monument dedicated to the residential school's survivors, Casimir said Tk'emlups te Secwepemc children will never have to suffer the way their elders did.
"What I can say and what I'd like to say is when we look at systemic racism, discrimination, it all stems from those truths being hidden, swept under the carpet, and today we just want to make sure that our future generations are taken care of," she said. "We want to make sure our children do not have to live those types of ugly histories."
The residential school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has record of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1914 and 1963. The commission noted in its 2015 report that officials in 1918 believed children at the school were not being adequately fed, leading to malnutrition.
The commission's 4,000-page account details harsh mistreatment at Canada's residential schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon Indigenous children.
At least 4,100 children died at the schools.
Casimir said those who survived the residential school must continue to share their stories.
"It will never repeat itself," she said. "Today, our children, they're educated in a good way, they're upheld and they're considered sacred."
The Tk'emlups te Secwepemc community has been "constantly, collectively grappling with the heart-wrenching truth brought to light," Casimir told an earlier news conference Friday.
"We are the home community of the lost loved ones," she said, adding the nation continues to reach out to communities whose members attended the school.
There's been an outpouring of support, she said, and people who have expertise or information that may be useful in the ongoing investigation of the site are being asked to contact the nation.
They are also asking for a public apology from the Catholic Church, Casimir said.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran almost half of Canada's residential schools, has yet to release any records about the school, said Casimir.
Father Ken Thorson, the provincial superior of the Oblates, said he reached out to the band last week when the news of the burial sites first became public.
Thorson said he wanted to apologize directly to the band, not through the media.
“I think, you know, an apology is easy. Our governments and churches have apologized before and haven’t changed. The question is followup, the question is action to the followup,” he said.
Thorson said the order looked at making its records available during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 but the effort stalled.
Many of the Oblates records are now with the Royal B.C. Museum, said Genevieve Weber, the acting head of archives at the museum.
She said it has about 250 boxes of records that range from correspondence items to financial reports and diaries.
The nation announced last week that it had used the services of a ground-penetrating radar specialist to find the remains of children long believed missing from the school, some as young as three years old. Its findings are preliminary, said Casimir, who expects a report from the investigation will be ready by the end of the month.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in a statement on Twitter Friday that out of respect for the privacy of survivors and their families the government has restricted the air space over the former residential school.
"We will continue to work closely with the Indigenous communities affected and respect their mourning period," he said.
Steady streams of people have stopped to pay their respects, and leave mementoes and flowers at the memorial at the former school.
School survivor Stanley Paul stood at the monument Friday and paid tribute with a song.
Paul, 75, said he was seven years old when he arrived at the school, but ran away at 16 to the United States. He said he is thankful the pain he and many others suffered at the school is being heard across Canada.
"It hurts," said Paul, touching his chest. "People in Ottawa, they're finding out. They now know what it is. What pain is."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on the Catholic Church to "step up" and take responsibility on Friday for its role in Canada's residential school system, saying that as a Catholic, he is deeply disappointed by the position the church has taken.
Internationally, the United Nations' human-rights special rapporteurs are calling on Canada and the Catholic Church to conduct prompt and thorough investigations into the discovery in Kamloops, including the identification of any remains and examination of the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding the deaths.
In a statement on Friday, they called on Ottawa to undertake similar investigations at all other Indigenous residential schools across Canada.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
— with files from Nick Wells and Brenna Owen in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press