Mass grave of 215 Indigenous children discovered in Kamloops, B.C.

KAMLOOPS – Last week, in a gut-wrenching and triggering discovery, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the news on Thursday, May 27, after the mass grave was found with the use of ground-penetrating radar.

While the timeframe for the deaths is unknown, a mass grave is typically created within a very short period of time. Either that or the school treated the grave as a landfill. Both scenarios are horrific.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Nation said the discovery is an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School”.

Preliminary work in finding the remains began in the 2000s, Chief Casimir said, in order to confirm the stories.

“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Casimir.

“Some were as young as three years old.

“We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”

While its doors closed in 1978, the Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest in the entire residential system, out of an astonishing 130 schools. Children from Penticton, Hope, Mount Currie, Lillooet, and areas outside the province were sent to the Kamloops residential school.

It was opened under the Roman Catholic Church administration in 1890 and at its peak in the 1950s, the school’s enrollment consisted of approximately 500 Indigenous children.

The 215 deaths are believed to be undocumented.

And at the time of writing, 4,100 Indigenous deaths have been officially recognized during Canada’s cultural genocide.

The tragic news caused shockwave across the country with many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people voicing their disbelief, their shock, and their horror.

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) Secretary-Treasurer Judy Wilson said, “As Secwépemc we are grieving our relatives, and all of the Stsmemelt, whose lives were lost to the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Though we knew that many children never returned home, and their families were left without answers, this confirmation brings a particular heaviness to our hearts and our spirits all throughout Secwépemculecw.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, UBCIC president said, “there are no words to express the deep mourning that we feel as First Nations people, and as survivors, when we hear an announcement like this. These were children, all belonging to a family and community, and a Nation, who were forcibly stolen from their homes under the authority of the Canadian government, and never returned.”

Phillip called on Canada and Canadians everywhere to “witness and recognize the truth of our collective history”.

“This is the reality of the genocide that was, and is, inflicted upon us as Indigenous peoples by the colonial state,” said Phillip. “Today we honour the lives of those children, and hold prayers that they, and their families, may finally be at peace.”

A day after the UBCIC’s press release, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart; it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.”

Although Trudeau’s remarks were appreciated, many in the Indigenous community were quick to point out the federal government is currently fighting residential school settlements in court.

It is suspected other schools across the country also have similar gravesites.

Jacob Cardinal is an Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Alberta Native News.