TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains details that may be disturbing to readers.
Residential school survivors and their First Nations families held vigils in the Alberni Valley for the 215 children whose remains were discovered in an unmarked gravesite near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Tk’emlups te Secwépemc (Kamloops Indian Band) brought the news to light last week, confirming they had found the remains by using ground penetrating radar around their community. Shock waves continue to reverberate at the news.
Tseshaht First Nation spent Monday afternoon honouring the children with a number of events.
The afternoon began with fish cooked over the fire at Paper Mill Dam. The fish was then distributed to the community to honour the lives taken and to honour the survivors of residential school.
Members of Tseshaht First Nation sang songs, drummed and danced outside of the Tseshaht Administration Building, then briefly stopped traffic on the Orange Bridge to sing another song. Martin Watts of Tseshaht First Nation said the day was about sending healing power to friends and relatives in Kamloops.
“Right here in our backyard, there’s unknown graves that we don’t know about,” said Watts. “Exact same thing.”
Nearly 50 people from a number of different First Nations attended a vigil Friday night, held in the empty lot beside ?iihmisuk taatna?is (Treasure Our Young Ones) childcare centre at the Port Alberni Friendship Center on Fourth Avenue. Wally Samuel, one of the people who spoke at the event, said people from Hupacasath Ha-wii, Huu-ay-aht Ha-wii, Ditidaht, Ahousaht, and Uchucklesaht First Nations were represented. Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council vice-president Mariah Charleson was there, he said, and the friendship center arranged support staff for those who needed extra support.
A number of people who shared their stories said they had relatives that attended the residential school in Kamloops. Charlie Thompson, a member of Ditidaht First Nation living in Lantzville who attended residential school in Port Alberni, said he is angry. “I went through a lot of different emotions listening to those people talking about children up there,” he said, accusing the Catholic Church of murder for its role in running the residential school.
“I feel really, really hurt for those 215 children. They didn’t deserve that. I’ve tried thinking over the past few days, how did their parents find out? Did they find out? Were they lied to, or were they told the truth about what happened?”
Marie Samuel, a residential school survivor from Maanulth whose younger sister attended the Kamloops school, thanked people for speaking up. She implored people to help families come together to deal with the news. “Klecko for the drums,” she thanked the drummers. “The government tried to take it away from us but they couldn’t take it away from us.
“We’re back here empowering ourselves with our singing and drumming.”
Wally Samuel reminded the gathering that there are survivors from many different residential schools that live in the Nuu-chah-nulth territory now, and that everyone needs to support each other.
The lasting impacts of these institutions continue to reverberate with Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) acknowledged their healing journey with a statement released Monday, May 31.
The NTC through its statement sent condolences to the families, friends and Nations of the children discovered buried at the former Kamloops residential school. “These children never had the opportunity to return home and live a life they deeply deserved, nor were they respected with a proper burial with their loved ones present to grieve their loss.”
“It is important that light has been shed on this tragic truth that many have known for so long, that numerous of our loved ones never returned home from residential school,” said NTC President Kekinusuqs, Judith Sayers. “The reality is that the federal and religious institutions may have wanted to silence these innocent children and forget about them, but these children can be silenced no longer.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their own language and practice their own culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has acknowledged an unknown number of students died while attending any of the 130 residential schools located across Canada. The last residential school closed in 1996.
Trevor Little, a Tseshaht singer and teacher, acknowledged on Monday the shame that many residential school survivors and their families still feel today.
“These schools were put up to take away culture,” he said. “They had purpose. We must remember that. What we endured was on purpose.”
“It’s the outside world finally learning it now,” said Little. “We have known this for generations.”
Mourners at Friday night’s vigil called for officials to search all the former residential school sites in Canada to uncover other possible mass burial sites.
Tk’emlups te Secwépemc officials are communicating with the BC Coroners Service, reaching out to the home communities that had children who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School and taking measures to ensure the locations of the remains are protected.
School District 70 (Pacific Rim) lowered flags at the school district office and all its schools. Flags at Port Alberni city hall were lowered to half-staff and will remain that way until June 8.
“The last few days have been filled with a lot of emotion following the tragic news of the 215 lost children,” Mayor Sharie Minions posted on social media. She related a story told to her by a First Nations friend, now passed, about the atrocities he experienced in residential school and the after-effects on him and his family (she said she had permission to share this story publicly).
“As a mother, my heart broke listening to him tell his story,” said Minions, who also attended the Tseshaht First Nation ceremony on Monday. “Our Nation needs to hear these horrible stories to even begin to understand the atrocities that have been done to Indigenous people and the repair and reconciliation that is needed.
“We mourn for the 215 children found and for their families.”
A vigil was also planned for the former site of the Alberni Indian Residential School at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 31, after the Alberni Valley News’ print edition went to press.
The B.C. Society of Residential School Survivors is offering toll-free telephone support for survivors at 1-800-721-0066. The 24-hour crisis line number is 1-866-925-4419. Kuu-us Crisis Line (adults): 250-723-4050; (youth) 250-723-2040 or 1-800-588-8717.
—With files from Kamloops This Week