Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc release final report on unmarked graves at former Kamloops residential school

A ground penetrating radar specialist said Thursday she identified approximately 200 potential burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School but says the number may be much higher since 158 acres remain to be surveyed and more forensic investigation and excavation work needs to be done.

Sarah Beaulieu, who has experience surveying Indigenous and city cemeteries and was the first to excavate First World War internment sites in Canada, said she surveyed two acres of a 160-acre area from May 21 to May 24.

Beaulieu, along with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc leaders, on Thursday presented findings of their report, called the Kamloops Indian Residential School Le Estcwéý (The Missing) Report. 

Beaulieu said an apple orchard near the school was chosen as the survey site after survivors brought forward stories of being woken up in the middle of the night to dig graves there.

During a presentation that outlined how ground penetrating radar (GPR) science works, Beaulieu also said a juvenile tooth and rib were found in the area. 

Beaulieu stressed that GPR is not necessary to confirm that children went missing at residential schools since there is copious oral history and documentation that confirms that fact. 

“Remote sensing merely provides some spatial specificity to this truth,” she said.

‘We love you, we see you and we believe you’

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said during the presentation that it is critical to ensure survivors are finally heard when it comes to the death of children at residential school. 

“We love you, we see you and we believe you,” Casimir said.

She said while this is being referred to as a dark chapter, she wants Canadians to know that Indigenous people are living with the repercussions today. 

“We are not here for retaliation, we are here for truth telling, we are here today to honour the children,” Casimir said.

In May, the nation released a statement saying preliminary findings from a survey of the site by ground-penetrating radar, combined with previous knowledge and oral history, indicated 215 children had been buried at the site.

“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said in the statement.

“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.” 

A cross with a child’s dress hangs along the highway outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at a growing memorial to honour the 215 children whose remains are thought to have been buried on the site of the school. In May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced a radar survey of the site had uncovered unmarked graves. (Ben Nelms)

After the preliminary discovery, the nation said it was working with the BC Coroners Service, contacting the children’s home communities, protecting the remains and working with museums to find records of these deaths.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until it closed in 1978.

Up to 500 students would have been registered at the school at any given time, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Those children would have come from First Nations communities across B.C. and beyond. 

Jaret Hamm and his son John place flowers beside a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 31. The First Nation released its report on the ground penetrating radar findings Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Further searches

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at residential schools in Canada, based on death records, but has said the true total is likely much higher.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

In the wake of the preliminary discovery in Kamloops, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which was in operation from 1899 to 1997.

After the preliminary discovery in Kamloops, memorials grew across the country to honour the many children who never made it home. This image shows such a memorial on the stairs of the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 31. (Ben Nelms)

Cowessess also used ground-penetrating radar to locate the grave sites earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if all the graves are connected to the residential school, which is located about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

Earlier this week, the Penelakut Tribe in B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands announced that more than 160 “undocumented and unmarked” graves have been found in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children’s remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used. 

The Williams Lake First Nation, located in the Cariboo region of the Central Interior region of B.C., is also preparing to search the site of another former facility, St Joseph’s Mission, which is located a few kilometres from the nation’s community core and operated as a residential school between 1886 and 1981.

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