B.C.-based First Nation may put names to unmarked graves with new residential school documents

·4 min read
A child's dress hangs on a cross near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck - image credit)
A child's dress hangs on a cross near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck - image credit)

The leadership of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc hopes to identify and locate missing children believed to be buried in unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (IRS) with the help of previously undisclosed documents set for release by the federal government.

The federal government plans to transfer more than 875,000 records through a recently signed agreement with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), the archival repository for all of the material collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Those files include the school "narrative" for Kamloops IRS, which summarizes the institution's history, including its administration, attendance record, key events and reports of abuse.

"We have to find answers," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told CBC News.

"Access to the records means not having to re-traumatize ... residential school survivors to pinpoint information about who attended KIRS and who could possibly be in the unmarked graves."

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc sent shockwaves around the world last May when it announced the preliminary findings from ground penetrating radar scans — 215 suspected graves of children near the site of Kamloops IRS.

Now, the community and residential school survivors are waiting for their chance to review these records for the first time, which could help piece together what happened at Canada's largest residential school.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The community is working with NCTR to sign a memorandum of understanding to access the documents, said its legal counsel Don Worme.

"The immediate task of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is to identify the missing children," Worme said. "We will follow the evidence."

The federal government said it did not release the files earlier because it lacked consent from a handful of Catholic entities. It's now waiving that requirement.

"Last year was a turning point for all Canadians," Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller told a press conference last Thursday.

"The identification of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country was tangible and painful evidence of the abuse of Indigenous children have suffered at residential schools."

Watch | The Fifth Estate's report on Kamloops IRS

Ten other school narratives are being released to the NCTR — from the Assumption, Fort Vermilion, Grouard, Sturgeon Lake, Kuper Island, St. Mary's, Mistassini Hostels, Kivalliq Hall, Fort George Anglican (St. Phillips) and Norway House (United) Indian Residential Schools.

'I want people to know the truth'

Casimir called Ottawa's move a "positive step" but acknowledged examining the documents won't be quick and will require careful consideration to balance the privacy interests of survivors.

Survivor Rose Miller has never seen any of her documents from the Kamloops IRS. She said she knows they contain details of abuse that she wants exposed.

"I want people to know the truth about those kinds of things," she said.

Rose Miller wants to ensure survivors can review the documents before they are publicly released so that personal information, such as names and health information, is not disclosed without their consent.

"There were some children born from the priests and the workers and the brothers who worked there," she said.

"There's a lot of that personal stuff that needs to be screened and not put public. But it's not up to someone else to do this, it's up to us ourselves who went to residential schools."

Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck
Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

Time is running out. Many survivors have passed away and time has dimmed their memories, she said.

Miller, who is 80, said she doesn't want to leave her children the responsibility for combing through the documents and trying to make sense of them.

"I don't know how long I'm going to live," Miller said.

"I have kidney disease and I could have kidney failure at any time. If I have possession of them, I can see what I can give to my children or I can explain to them what I want published and what I don't want published."

For Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band, just knowing the documents still exist is a relief.

"There's always been some concern on my side that they were going to be lost or destroyed," he said. "Hearts and souls are in those documents."

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It's the first step, he said, in building trust back in the federal government.

McLeod said he hopes the physical exploitation that happened to him at the Kamloops IRS is documented.

"We can talk about a lot of traumas that we experienced at the school, but the one trauma that hits us the hardest is the physical abuse that we endured at that school," McLeod said.

"We just want to be seen and acknowledged as human beings."

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