“We will follow the evidence and the science while we pay heed to what oral tellings survivors share with us.”

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Note: This article references topics and details that some readers may find distressing or disturbing. Support is available at B.C.’s 24/7 First Nations and Aboriginal crisis line at 1-800-588-8717.

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First Nations leaders, archeologists and residential school survivors are calling on the federal government to release records and provide funding they say is needed to help them identify the remains of children in unmarked graves near the former Kamloops residential school.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation hosted a gathering of Indigenous leaders, technical experts, academics, survivors and community members on Thursday to discuss next steps in what it’s calling “The Missing Report Findings.”

“We are mapping a way forward to bring peace to Kamloops Indian Residential School missing children, their families and their communities,” Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told the group in her opening comment “We will follow the evidence and the science while we pay heed to what oral tellings survivors share with us.”

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Casimir called on the federal government to release its records.

“Those primary documents, the school attendance records, are currently in the custody of the Canadian government and they are crucial to identification.” said Casimir. “Access to experts is also critical to bring the truth to light and to bring peace to the family members of these missing children.”

Ground penetrating radar has identified more than 200 “targets of interest,” said Sarah Beaulieu, a specialist in the technology from the University of the Fraser Valley, who led the survey. That differs from the 215 unmarked graves announced by the First Nation in May.

Beaulieu explained; “My number is 200. I received archeological reports on impact assessments that had taken place before and I had to rule them out from my survey.”

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She told the group she offered her services last year, after speaking with a colleague from the Indigenous studies department at Simon Fraser University.

“I learned that a juvenile tooth was excavated at the site in the late 1990s, early 2000s, during an archaeological survey by Simon Fraser University. Around the same time, a juvenile rib was brought into the Kamloops museum by a tourist.”

Beaulieu said her survey mapped about a hectare of land near an apple orchard on the former residential school grounds, She said she believes there are many other unmarked grave sites as another 64 hectares around the school site have not been surveyed.

“This investigation has merely scratched the surface,” said Beaulieu.

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But she added, “With GPR we can never say for sure they are human remains. That won’t be known until they are excavated.”

However, there is debate among members of the Nation about whether that should happen.

Evelyn Camille spent 10 years at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, starting at age 6.

“I tried to explain the abuse that was happening in letters to my parents,” she said. “But all the letters were censored.”

Camille told the gathering she knows of children who drowned or froze to death trying to escape from the school, and that children were buried around it, but she does not want those burial sites excavated.

“What will those studies do?” she asked, as she wiped away tears. “Will it help me in my life? No. Those remains should be left undisturbed. I want to take care of the site. We believe we must use prayer and ceremony to guide them home to finish their journey.”

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Lawyer Don Worme, who has been hired by the Nation, believes difficult work needs to be done.

“We need to identify the communities where they came from. They came from across B.C. and Alberta and Yukon,” he said.

“Some want the site to be left undisturbed, others are calling for the identification of these children. We need to balance those competing interests with the capabilities of these communities. This work will be done.”

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Roseanne Archibald, told the gathering, “This was a genocide and the criminals must be held to account.”

“I have spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with a reasonable and fair request to help us recover our little ones,” she said. “As chief of the AFN, I am urgently working to seek the resources we need for healing,” said Archibald.

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Liona Thomas told the gathering she remembers her first day at the school, when she was six years old.

“I was taken from a loving home filled with humour and laughter, love and honour and I was put into a cold, stark environment. A child in an environment that had no love, no hugs, no caring,” said Thomas. “It took me a long time to be able to cry and to share my emotions.”

Casimir invited Trudeau to come to Kamloops to mark the first national day of Truth and Reconciliation.

“We are still waiting for you to reach out to us,” she said. “We invite you to join us at our powwow on Sept. 30, to interact with survivors. It is fitting that you come here, to the first place in Canada where ground penetrating radar revealed what we have known.”

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The Kamloops Indian Residential School is believed to have been the largest such school in the country. It was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 until 1969, when the federal government took over operations. The school closed in 1978. There were 500 students at the school at any given time. They came from across B.C., Alberta and Yukon.

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.


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