Native tragedy in British Columbia hits home

·4 min read

Jun. 6—The remains of 215 indigenous children were found recently in Kamloops, British Columbia.

They were former residents at the Kamloops Indian School, one of hundreds of boarding schools across North America where indigenous adolescents were sent to white education in the U.S. and Canada.

Niagara Falls was lit orange Wednesday and Thursday in observance of the tragedy. Seneca Niagara Casino patrons and employees are being encouraged to wear orange as part of the observance.

The Kamloops tragedy touched Tonawanda Seneca Faye Lone deeply. The artist, who won Best of Show at the 2019 Lewiston Art Festival, said her mother and brothers were both "educated" at the Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation.

"Kamloops is not the only one," Lone said "Now the technology is available, I'd love to see scans of areas near the Thomas School or the Carlisle School (in Pennsylvania).

"It was not a school for us but a tragedy. People act like it was 150 years ago. It wasn't. The Thomas School was operating in the 1970s."

Lone said in her family, the historical impact of trauma is very real because it impacts how people live, parent and teach their children. "The thought was, kill the Indian, save the child," Lone said.

Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels said the Kamloops School, which closed in 1969, was once Canada's largest such institution.

"Senecas are grieving along with the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in the wake of this recent discovery," Pagels said. "Another gruesome reminder of the treatment and terror that generations of indigenous people suffered at the hands of foreign settlers on our own lands."

The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, have been found buried on the site of what was once Canada's largest Indigenous residential school — one of the institutions that held children taken from families across the nation.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a news release that the remains were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

More bodies may be found because there are more areas to search on the school grounds, Casimir said Friday.

In an earlier release, she called the discovery an "unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School."

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

Casimir said it's believed the deaths are undocumented, although a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.

"Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond," Casimir said in the initial release issued late last week.

The leadership of the Tk'emlups community "acknowledges their responsibility to caretake for these lost children," Casimir said.

Access to the latest technology allows for a true accounting of the missing children and will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost, she said in the release.

Casimir said band officials are informing community members and surrounding communities that had children who attended the school.

The First Nations Health Authority called the discovery of the remains "extremely painful" and said in a website posting that it "will have a significant impact on the Tk'emlúps community and in the communities served by this residential school."

The authority's CEO, Richard Jock, said the discovery "illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities,."

Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University, said each of her first-year law students at the Kamloops university spends at least one day at the former residential school speaking with survivors about conditions they had endured.

She said she did not hear survivors talk about an unmarked grave area, "but they all talk about the kids who didn't make it."

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.