There were whispers on the ground of the Kamloops Indian Residential School about what really happened to the missing children.
Chief Harvey McLeod, of the Upper Nicola Band, attended the school from 1966 to ’68 and recalls how he and other students would wonder what had happened to some of their peers, who stopped showing up to class.
He remembers one particular instance when they assumed a classmate had run away and made it home.
“We never knew, nor did we question … and one day, what I recall is, somebody said he died. And we left it at that,” McLeod says.
He said it seemed like “common knowledge” that some kids were going missing, but it was never spoken of openly.
That changed this week when he received a call informing him that the remains of 215 children had been discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
While calling the news devastating, Indigenous leaders said Friday the discovery underscores the fact there are likely many more unmarked burial sites stemming from residential schools across the country that have yet to be found — and they urged government officials to provide the resources to locate them.
The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969 and was once the largest in Canada’s residential school system, with as many as 500 students registered at its peak. The federal government took over the facility’s operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
It was the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, the home community of the school, that revealed this week that new, ground-penetrating technology had been able to confirm the remains of the children, whose deaths are believed to be undocumented.
McLeod said it pains him to think some of those children he remembered going missing might be buried there today.
“I would hope (they are) not. But there is high probability that it was. … The truth is coming out. Because this is something we never talked about,” McLeod said.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said the discovery substantiates what the First Nation has suspected for decades and it’s now time for the federal government and the entire country to acknowledge how little is truly known about the atrocities that occurred in the residential school system.
“It’s a harsh reality,” Casimir said of the discovery. “And it’s our truth, it’s our history and it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove.”
Casimir said in a news release that some of the children were as young as three.
She said she believes there are more children to be discovered as they have not surveyed the entire school’s grounds.
“We know that through (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) how many missing children there are, and we know that there’s still a lot of work, and we do know that many other First Nations who’ve had residential schools within their communities … want to use new technology to be able to find their lost loved ones as well,” Casimir said.
The commission has records 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.
Ry Moran, founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Red River Métis, said that as many as 400 unmarked burial locations are believed to exist across the country, of which only about 100 have been identified.
“Days like today reveal how much there’s still to uncover in regards to the history and impact of residential schools — how many more children there are still awaiting honour and remembrance,” Moran said.
“We still know there’s a big, huge piece of work to be done.”
Reaction to the discovery was swift. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the news was a “painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan also made a statement, saying he was “horrified and heartbroken.”
“This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. And it is a stark example of the violence the Canadian residential school system inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples and how the consequences of these atrocities continue to this day,” Horgan said.
About a decade ago, UBC history student Jenna Foster scoured news articles, testimonials and archives as part of her honours thesis examining the Kamloops residential school.
The school was run for eight decades by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of St. Ann orders of the Roman Catholic Church, she wrote in her paper posted online.
Until the 1950s, the school operated under a half-day system with students spending half their day in school and half their day at work, usually in agriculture, Foster wrote. The boys typically grew alfalfa, corn, beets, potatoes, cabbages and fruit, and also were taught shoe-making and carpentry, while the girls learned cooking, butter-making, sewing, knitting, and preserving fruits and vegetables.
“All the government, church, newspaper reports of the (school) are presented in a positive light to the Canadian public,” Foster wrote. “The records highlight the Oblates’ achievements of the assimilation of Indigenous students into Euro-Canadian culture. It is important to note, that the students’ perspectives of the school are absent in all these reports.”
Years later, in 2000, the unflinching accounts of 32 former students were compiled in the book Behind Closed Doors, published by the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society. “Many of the stories tell of oppression, abuse and cruelty, but they are told without malice,” the introduction states.
In his account, Ron Ignace recalled being taken to the school for the first time and staff leading him down a hall away from his relatives.
“I gave out a type of scream that I had never ever given out in my life. I learned that there is a name for that kind of scream: It’s called a primal scream. That is a cry that a person gives, a cry of distress from the centre of the soul.”
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Andrew Amos recalled not being allowed to speak his traditional language and how structured everything was.
“We would pray when we got up in the morning and before meals and bedtime. Everything was regimented. … We were told when to keep quiet, when to talk. Many of us never learned to express our feelings. Today, I am very good at clamming up, not dealing with situations at hand.”
Paul Michel, former chief of the Adams Lake Indian Band, whose parents both graduated from the Kamloops residential school in the early 1950s, told the Star on Friday the revelation of the burial site is “horrifying.”
“We have these children who are buried without ceremony, dignity and without respect,” he said, adding he suspects there likely will be more remains uncovered.
Michel says his mother is now 90 but still recalls returning to the school each year, staring up at the white ceiling as she lay in bed and knowing she’d be “sealed up” for the next 10 months. She compared it to a “knife going through her heart.”
Michel, who currently serves as special adviser to the president on Indigenous matters at Thompson Rivers University, said he thought about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s characterization of that time period as a “cultural genocide.”
There’s really no point couching the language anymore, he said.
“‘Cultural genocide’ kind of softens the word ‘genocide’ because this is genocidal news yesterday.”
In its final report in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said while some burial places were located within or near old school grounds, many were not readily identifiable and not maintained.
The commission said it had identified 3,200 deaths of residential school students and concluded, “Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population.”
While tuberculosis was cited for many deaths, the cause was unknown in about half the cases. Further, many of the diagnoses may have been inaccurate as they were made by individuals without medical training.
Moran, now the University of Victoria’s associate university librarian, reconciliation, adds that while disease was a major factor, the school conditions likely allowed disease to spread and made children more vulnerable.
“The sanitary nature of the school, the underfunding, the overcrowding, the poor ventilation the poor heating, the lack of good food and nutrition are all contributing factors,” he said.
“You can’t look at disease in isolation. There was a bunch of stuff going on, in addition to all the trauma, the loneliness, the heartache, pain and suffering.”
Moran said the uncovering of the burial site in Kamloops highlights the need for government leaders to act on the commission’s calls to action, including the creation of a residential schools national monument in Ottawa and the creation of a statutory holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to honour survivors and victims.
“It’s very concerning we haven’t seen more progress on some of these fundamental and important calls to action,” Moran said.
It appears lawmakers are heeding the call. They moved on Friday to fast-track legislation to create a statutory holiday, which would apply to federally regulated workers, that would fall on Sept. 30.
In a Liberal motion, MPs moved unanimously to wrap debate on Bill C-5 and deem it passed by day’s end, sending it to the Senate.
For Chief McLeod, it’s about time that what was once an open secret is acknowledged across Canada and that real meaningful action is undertaken.
“We’ve been through so much, as individuals, as families, as communities not talking about this,” he said.
McLeod grappled with trauma from experiencing physical and sexual abuse at the school for most of his life. For decades, he said, he never cried and hated hearing his name in public because it brought back memories of his time at the school. It took him a long healing journey before he got to the point where he could feel pride when he heard his name spoken in public.
When he first heard news of the discovery, he said, he was overcome with shock and hurt.
But when he contemplated what he had survived, and where he is today, he said he felt strength.
“How I felt when I left there and how I felt most of my life was that I was a weak, angry, spiteful, not loveable human being. And when I heard about the 215 children I said ‘God dang. I was a strong boy. I left that building. I left that experience and came home.’”
With files from The Canadian Press