The remains of 215 children, including some as young as 3, were found buried under a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, a First Nation confirmed Thursday.
It’s “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented,” Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc said in a statement.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed the preliminary findings with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist who will continue to work with the community as they complete a survey of the former residential school grounds. Ceremonial knowledge keepers oversaw the work to ensure it was done respectfully.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir. “Some were as young as 3 years old.”
The 215 children were students of the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was established in 1890. It was the largest in the Indian Affairs residential school system in Canada, and it closed down in 1978. As many as 500 students would be enrolled at any given time.
Residential schools were used by the Canadian government to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children, amounting to cultural genocide. Findings published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission five years ago detailed how students were systematically stripped away from their families and communities and forced to attend the schools, where they were often punished for speaking their Indigenous languages or expressing their identities. Sweeping abuses were common and thousands died while attending residential schools. Others disappeared after running away. The last residential school didn’t close until 1996.
Casimir said the community wanted to confirm the burial spots “out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place.”
Going forward, the community plans to engage with a coroner, reach out to the home communities of the children who were found, safeguard the remains and their burial sites, and further investigate the deaths to see if documentation exists.
More updates are expected next month, the statement says.
So far, more than 4,100 children who died while attending residential school have been identified as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Project, which documents the burial sites of children who died while at residential school.
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Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.