The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation are advising people to slow the pace of visits and follow COVID-19 protocols when gathering at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in response to news of the remains of 215 children found buried on the property.
The warning comes as Interior Health reported 31 new COVID-19 cases in its latest daily count, from June 15 to June 16.
There have been multiple, large gatherings of people on the grounds of the former residential school, including most recently a three-day walk organized by the Adams Lake Indian Band.
While there’s a need to be with people and express emotions, smaller, localized gatherings in home communities are just as effective as gatherings of thousands, albeit not as powerful, First Nations Health Authority Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said.
“But certainly safer and more intimate,” McDonald said. “So rally, pay tribute, light a a sacred fire and honour the children in the ways that you and your community know best and let’s pace ourselves to make sure we still have the energy, strength and spirit for what’s to come.”
Tk’emlúps Chief Rosanne Casimir told reporters during a June 16 online press conference that the band appreciates how many people want to visit the property to pay their respects, but noted the pace of gatherings needs to be slowed to ensure planning can be done in conjunction with Tk’emlups.
“It has been a whirlwind of activity around Kamloops Indian Residential School, at our memorial and our arbour at the powwow grounds,” Casimir said.
She said the band is shouldering a great burden when it comes to ensuring people adhere to to public health measures, in addition to security and custodial work, as well as resource and financial costs.
“There have been non-stop activities since the news broke,” Casimir said. “We need to work with everyone to ensure our community and resources are not overwhelmed by activities and visitors.”
While Casimir said the band respects the need to gather and conduct ceremonies in grieving the discovery, she noted Tk’emlups members have only just started to receive their second doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. With such high traffic in its community, the band wants to ensure activities on their reserve don’t lead to an outbreak of the virus within Interior Health and is asking people gathering ensure pandemic protocols are followed.
She said the band will continue to welcome the general public on its property to pay their respects at the residential school memorial in front of the former school building “in a COVID-safe way.”
Casimir said this is only the beginning, noting that more missing children in unmarked graves are expected to be found and more ceremonies are expected to follow.
McDonald noted that while Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has approved B.C. moving to stage two of its pandemic reopening plan, gatherings are still limited to 50 people.
“We still need to be cautious of the fact that COVID is still active in the Interior Health region,” she said.
McDonald said anyone who has symptoms should remain home and masks should be worn when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
“We need to consider our space in maintaining reasonable physical distance and mental space to do the work that we each need to do to heal,” McDonald said. “There are many discoveries to come and we need to prepare for a healing journey, and we need to be able to co-ordinate our efforts.”
Casimir said the band still expects to release the report on the discovery of the children’s remains by the end of June. That report is expected to include details of the ground-penetrating radar technology used in the process.
Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week