Kamloops: Where Are the Children Buried? - Comment and Resources

Published on June 04, 2021

Canadians, Indigenous families, and communities continue to mourn the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass gravesite at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site on unceded Secwépemc Territory. The deaths of residential school children and their disappearance are not new. The Secwépemc Council has been working on the issue for the last decade, well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided a specific plan of action in 2016 for Indigenous communities. Regrettably, since 1888* (noting that the very first schools were set up prior to Confederation) Canadians have generally been unwilling or ignorant of the consequences of the Indian Act, the creation of reserves, the residential “school” system, the foster care system, the denial of treaties, and land acquisitions. Few Canadians have bothered to read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents or any detailed reports from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Commission. Fewer still know how over 600 Indigenous communities govern themselves, or indeed are aware of Canada's colonial history.

The revelation of the 215 children whose remains have been found in a massive gravesite in Kamloops, British Columbia, has at long last changed the optics for Canadians about residential schools.

In 1888, the federal government turned to religious authorities to open and operate the schools. With funding provided by the government, these schools, modelled on UK and French institutions began the intentional assimilation of Indigenous children in a systematic process that in some cases devolved/eroded into outright labour camps. Children died, often with little or no care, from a host of horrendous illnesses-notably typhoid, tuberculous, and influenza. Children also died of starvation, by suicide, in fires, and many died frozen to death trying to escape the harrowing and horrifying conditions they had been forced to endure. It is difficult to ascertain the absolute number of deaths as many children have disappeared. Many lie interred in unmarked mass gravesites.

After seven generations of residential schools, what remains today are 80,000 Indigenous people across Canada who are survivors of the residential school system.

Apologies have not been enough.

The good news is that the process for Truth and Reconciliation is steadfast. No solutions will be paternalistic or top-down. No solutions will be a quick one fix for all. Since 2016, the federal government has recognized that each community’s response is unique, and that reconciliation requires a process whereby each community determines their own way forward in addressing the deaths and disappearance of their children. Some Indigenous communities, for example, want to destroy the residential schools still standing, whereas some are turning the schools into museums. Still others want to turn the schools into learning centres. No Indigenous community wants non-Indigenous people to tell them how to grieve and “fix” things. We need to respect their own individual traditional process of mourning and how they wish to commemorate.

The Montreal Council of Women supports the Truth and Reconciliation process and the immediate need to address the following demands:

  • that the process will be community-based, survival-centric, and address a commemoration of the death of Indigenous children;
  • that Canada adopt the government's Bill C-15 (currently in Senate) to sign the International Declaration of Indigenous Peoples;
  • that the work/funding of a death registry, started by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continue with the expressed need for all religious authorities to release all school enrollment documents and death records;
  • that Indigenous communities be provided with funds for them to access expertise (e.g. forensic anthropologists) with the identification of children who died or disappeared;
  • that funding for mental health services continue for survivors, a toll-free number has been established, and $2.2. million devoted to mental health in the 2021 budget;
  • that access to the $24 million in funds set aside for commemoration be made available.

The death of children in residential schools has taken a huge toll on ALL Indigenous communities be they First Nations, Métis, or Inuit- ALL are grieving the children lost.

For those Canadians who do not share this history as victims, yet are profoundly distressed by the truth unfolding, it is our hope and recommendation that members and the community at large invest in learning more and to respectfully engage with the communities and families whose healing processes are uniquely personal and not exclusively linked to the truth and reconciliation process.

All children matter. Those living today, those whose remains have been uncovered and those whose bodies are yet to be found.

VP Maria Peluso

Resources and Basic Facts

According to the TRC a total of 139 residential schools were identified in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, though this excludes those run by provincial governments and those run solely by religious orders.

Of those schools, 44 were operated by Roman Catholics; 21 were operated by the Church of England / Anglican Church of Canada; 13 were operated by the United Church of Canada, and 2 were operated by Presbyterians.

Important Official Resources

The best resource for information can be found on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s site here: Reports - NCTR

Reports easily downloaded include:

  • Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  • Where are the Children buried? Dr. Scott Hamilton Dept. of Anthropology, Lakehead University
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

Regarding the call for an apology from church communities that have yet to formally issue an apology:

  • In 2009 a communiqué was issued by the Holy See Press Office from Pope Benedict:
    “Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.”

It is hoped that where stronger and direct apologies have yet to be shared that these be forthcoming in the immediate future. The call for such actions must come from the faith communities and preferably with the support of civil society.

We welcome the statement issued yesterday (June 2nd) by the Catholic Bishop of Vancouver.

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