The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops residential school last week has “rocked the Secwépemc to its core,” according to Tsq’escen (Canim Lake Band) Chief Helen Henderson.
The May 27 announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc that the remains of children – some as young as three years old – were found with the help of ground-penetrating radar has left Henderson and many others at the Canim Lake Band feeling heartbroken and angry.
“It brought us to a time and a place right now where our history can no longer be denied or swept under the rug or dismissed,” Henderson said. “Our trauma is being triggered as well as the grief and loss we are experiencing right now thinking about these 215 lost souls who need to be repatriated to their homes.”
Indigenous communities across B.C. have expressed horror and heartbreak following last week’s news. On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered flags to be lowered to half-mast at all federal buildings, and the B.C. legislature and schools across the province followed suit.
Henderson said a priority for the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is for the children to be identified and returned home. She said there is a “very real possibility” that some of the children discovered in Kamloops could have ties to the Canim Lake Band and community members are bracing themselves for that potential news.
Another priority for Indigenous communities, Henderson said, is holding the federal government to account for what was uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The TRC, established in 2008, aimed to document the history and impacts of the residential school system in Canada. In 2015, a summary report of the TRC’s findings was released, including 94 Calls to Action, aiming to atone for the harms resulting from residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation.
According to Henderson, these objectives, along with other promises made by Trudeau to advance reconciliation, have been “fruitless.”
“There is a lot of hurt and anger about the seeming indifference from the federal government,” she said. “We’d like their words to be put into action.”
Indigenous leaders across the country are calling for all residential school sites to now be checked for possible remains, something Henderson “absolutely” supports.
She said stories she has heard of the St. Joseph’s Mission residential school outside of Williams Lake – including reports of a tunnel leading away from the school where priests and nuns were witnessed taking children and babies who were never seen again – lead her to believe there could be a similar burial site at that location.
“Those stories are a thousandfold across the nation, across the world, where these institutions were located,” she said.
Over the coming days and weeks, the Tsq’escen, in conjunction with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, will hold a sacred fire, a cultural tradition for the Sxwixwéytemc (lost loved ones) that helps light their journey home to their ancestors.
“Given the current situation with the pandemic, it’s difficult to implement cultural protocols,” Henderson said, noting the band is feeling hopeful that COVID-19 restrictions will be eased, allowing them to carry out the ceremonies.
In the longer term, Henderson said those in her community and beyond need to push for accountability on truth and reconciliation, but also issues of mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples and the opioid crises.
“We are cognizant of what needs to happen and the conversation now has to move into actions,” she said. “This is what a lot of our Indigenous population is screaming for.”
An important first step, Henderson said, is facing the reality of what residential schools were and using the appropriate language to describe the atrocities that took place.
“We need to change the narrative, and describe it for what it actually is. How could a three-year-old be a student?” she said. “That’s how we honour and that’s how we affect change.”