First Nation calls for release of school records to identify residential victims

The First Nations community that shocked Canada with the discovery of unmarked graves says school records will be critical in identifying victims — and that a much greater area needs to be searched to understand the true scale of the tragedy.

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation released on Thursday its first full report on the discovery of what are suspected to be 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.

“We are not here for retaliation. We are here for truth telling,” Kúkpi7 (chief) Rosanne Casimir said at a presentation of the findings. “We are here today to honour the missing children in our caretakership who have experienced unthinkable circumstances leading to their death and whose remains were placed in unmarked graves.”

The report comes nearly two months after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had identified suspected unmarked graves.

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Canada’s residential schools

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, First Nation calls for release of school records to identify residential victims, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

Canada’s residential schools

Over the course of 100 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.

They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect and suicide; many were never returned to their families.

The last residential school closed in 1996.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In 2015, a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded that the residential school system amounted to a policy of cultural genocide.

Survivor testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife at the schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed down to younger generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.

Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, and racism against Indigenous people is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.

The commissioners identified 20 unmarked gravesites at former residential schools, but they also warned that more unidentified gravesites were yet to be found across the country.

Photograph: Provincial Archives Of Saskatchewan/PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES OF SASKATCHE

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At least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools across the country, which were funded by the federal government and run by churches as part of the campaign to strip the youth of their cultural identity.

Since then, other First Nations have reported similar discoveries at the site of former residential schools.

Cowessess First Nation in the province of Saskatchewan announced 751 potential unmarked grave sites last month and 182 graves were discovered near the St Eugene residential school in south-eastern British Columbia. Earlier this week, Penelakut Tribe said more than 160 undocumented graves had been found near the site of the Kuper Island residential school.

Casimir called on the federal government to release attendance records to begin the process of identifying potential victims.

“Every student who ever attended the Kamloops residential school is documented in those records,” she said. “We are loth to put the responsibility of identifying those lost on the survivors … who have been traumatized and re-traumatized already.”

Casimir also called on the Catholic church to release its records, taking aim at an institution that has faced growing criticism over its failure to compensate survivors.

“The Roman Catholic church has repeatedly refused to accept responsibility or formally apologize for its direct role in the numerous and horrific abuses committed … through the residential school system,” she said.

As part of the announcement, survivors of the school testified about the legacy of the institution.

Evelyn Camille, a Tk’emlups te Secwepemc elder who was forced to attend the school, said many had long warned of missing children, but were ignored.

“Truth and reconciliation? I often wondered, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Do they want to hear the truth, really? We have tried to tell them the truth,” she said. “Who is going to listen?”

Camille called on the graves to remain untouched. “Yes there may have to be some studies to be done, but what good are those studies going to do for us?”

Only two acres of the site, at an apple orchard have been studied – a space that has “barely scratched the surface”, said Dr Sarah Beaulieu, a specialist in ground-penetrating radar who has worked with the community. An additional 160 acres – 647,500 square meters – still require surveying.

Stories of children as young as six being awoken in the night to dig holes for burials, as well as the discovery of a juvenile rib bone and tooth in that area prompted the initial search earlier this year.

Only excavation and forensic study, however, can conclusively confirm how many children are buried on the grounds, said Beaulieu.

“Remote sensing such as [ground penetrating radar] is not necessary to know that children went missing in the Indian residential school context. This fact, this knowledge has been recognized by Indigenous communities for generations,” she said. “All residential school landscapes are likely to contain burials and missing children. And remote sensing such as [radar] merely provides some spatial specificity to this truth.”

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