WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
After a year of mourning since the detection of 215 presumed unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian residential school, a new phase begins in the journey of Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation —bringing missing children home.
The ancient apple orchard where traces of burials were found by ground-penetrating radar last May could soon be the site of an archaeological dig and work to exhume the remains, said Kukpi7 or Chief Rosanne Casimir .
“It’s something that has never happened in history here in Canada,” she said at a press conference on Wednesday. “There is no set of guidelines, no checklist.”
To dig or not to dig has been one of the thorniest questions surrounding the issue of unmarked graves in residential schools. No consensus emerged among survivors, with some seeing exhumation as a process that could help victims rest properly, while others want them undisturbed.
As for suggestions that the site should be treated as a crime scene, the RCMP says it has opened a file into the matter, but there is no ongoing investigation.
“We know that when we start doing certain archaeological work, we know that, number one, when we do that, it’s going to be about communication,” Casimir said.
“It’s going to be about respect, honor and dignity. It’s going to be about connecting anyone we can find to their home community.”
Casimir is committed to keeping members of the nation informed of progress and discoveries at the site.
She described the nation’s approach to the site as an ongoing process of “exhumation to commemoration,” which would involve finding evidence of remains and linking them to original communities.
“We use science to support every step as we move forward,” she said.
“We have a technical working group that has been put together which consists of various professors as well as technical archaeologists and we are also continuing to work with a ground penetrating radar specialist.”
The nation announced on Thursday that ground-penetrating radar would be used again this week to search another section of land surrounding the former boarding school.
Kamloops school survivor Garry Gottfriedson said he struggled with whether the site should be dug up or left alone, but he’s leaning toward evidence to comfort himself and the children buried and the nation.
“If you can imagine something that eats away at your whole soul for your whole life, and then, finally, there’s some peace of mind,” he said. “That’s how it is for me. It’s a way to end some of this ugly story. ”
Gottfriedson, 69, said he attended Kamloops boarding school from kindergarten to grade 3 between 1959 and 1963, where he witnessed abuse but was largely protected by his older brothers at school.
The internationally acclaimed poet said his other eight siblings, his mother and up to 30 aunts, uncles and cousins from his famous Secwepemc Nation ranching and rodeo family attended the school. .
“All of us who were at this boarding school already knew that they [bodies] were there,” said Gottfriedson, who provides curriculum guidance and advice at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops on Secwepemc Nation cultural protocols and practices.
“Now it’s kind of like saying, ‘Do you believe us?’ Exhuming these bodies and that sort of thing is a way of saying, ‘Now, if it was your 215 loved ones who were put in a mass grave like this, tell me how you would cope.’
Percy Casper, another survivor from the Kamloops school, said he wanted the burial site undisturbed. The exhumation would only prove what has already been established by ground-penetrating radar, he said.
“The remains are there,” he said. “What more proof do they want?”
Casper, 73, who spent 10 years at the Kamloops school, said he would rather see the old school building, which currently houses the nation’s offices, demolished.
“I want this to be so bad,” said Casper, who is from the Bonaparte Indian Band in the Cache Creek area.
Professor Geoff Bird, an anthropologist at Royal Roads University’s School of Communication and Culture in Victoria, said he already considered the evidence from unmarked graves to be “irrefutable”.
But the exhumation could be part of a powerful process of recognition and reconciliation for the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc.
“It is the community and the families who ultimately decide if they want to engage in this act of exhumation,” said Bird, a cultural memory and war heritage expert who previously worked as an interpreter. of heritage at the National Memorial of Canada on Vimy Ridge, France.
“If the idea is to ultimately commemorate those buried there, that’s really a laudable goal,” he said. “Spending this time investigating in any way, shape or form is essentially an act of remembering.”
Casimir said the RCMP and the British Columbia Coroners Service were contacted shortly after the discovery last May, but she did not specify police contacts.
RCMP E Division said in a statement that they are not currently investigating the site.
“Although we have opened an investigation file, we are not actively investigating,” Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said in a statement.
“The file has been opened so that we can assist if our assistance is required. We respect that Tk’emlups te Secwepemc remains the primary culprit at this time, and that the RCMP will continue to support him.”
The ceremony will take place on Monday
A day-long cultural ceremony is scheduled for Monday at Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Pow Wow Arbor to mark the anniversary of the discoveries, Casimir said.
She said the findings on the site “shook me to the core”.
The detection of hundreds more graves believed to be linked to residential schools across Canada would follow, amid a year of addressing the legacy of residential schools for Indigenous children.
A 4,000-page report released in 2015 by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed severe mistreatment in schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths in institutions.
The report cites records of at least 51 children who died at the Kamloops school between 1914 and 1963. Health officials in 1918 believed children at the school were not being properly fed, leading to malnutrition , notes the report.
The Kamloops boarding 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.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has been established to provide support to residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have information on unmarked graves, children who never came home, or residential school staff and operations? Email your advice to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: [email protected]