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Residential school survivor Evelyn Camille speaks at a presentation of a study on unmarked graves discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on July 15, 2021.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

The First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has shared new details about a search that led to the discovery of children’s remains at the site of what was once Canada’s largest residential school, a finding that brought the deaths of Indigenous children at the schools into the national and international spotlight.

The southern B.C. First Nation’s leadership announced on May 27 that 215 unmarked and previously undocumented gravesites had been found using ground-penetrating radar at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The remains were described as belonging to children as young as 3.

At the time, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said the results were released quickly after an early report from the scene by the technician doing the work, and that a full report would be released in June, though it was ultimately delayed several weeks.

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On Thursday, Sarah Beaulieu, who performed the search just days before the preliminary results were made public, said nothing has changed substantively since her initial findings. She did, however, reduce the number of probable gravesites from 215 to 200, taking into account previous excavation work that had been done in the area that could have influenced the results.

She also stressed her findings can’t be confirmed unless excavations are done at the scene.

“Which is why we need to pull back a little bit and say that they are ‘probable burials,’ they are ‘targets of interest,’ for sure,” said Dr. Beaulieu, who has about a decade of experience searching for historic grave sites, including working with the RCMP and other First Nations communities. She said the sites “have multiple signatures that present like burials,” but that “we do need to say that they are probable, until one excavates.”

The investigation has “barely scratched the surface,” covering just under two acres of the total 160-acre residential school site in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Dr. Beaulieu said.

“This is a long process that will take significant time and resources. They were children, robbed of their families and their childhood,” she said at the press conference. “We need to now give them the dignity that they never had. Those are our next steps.”

Kukpi7 Casimir said in an interview that the next step for her First Nation is to form a team of archeologists and technical experts to employ more radar to scour the rest of the grounds.

In her presentation, Dr. Beaulieu, a modern conflict anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, went through some of the scientific aspects of her search of the area with ground-penetrating radar, including sharing imaging that demonstrated what is seen with other disturbances in the ground – such as tree roots, metal and stones. She pointed out the indicators that led her to conclude that disruptions picked up in the radar were, in fact, the graves of children – their placement, size, depth and other features.

Some of Dr. Beaulieu’s earlier research involved locating unmarked grave sites at Canada’s First World War internment camps, and she said donated equipment from that project was used at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

She said the previous discovery of a child’s tooth, a juvenile rib bone found by a tourist, and the stories of elders and knowledge keepers led to the search of an orchard area around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site.

“All residential school landscapes are likely to contain burials and missing children,” she said. “And remote sensing such as [ground-penetrating radar] merely provides some spatial specificity to this truth.”

The expert who used ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School says there are likely more unmarked graves in the area with less than two acres of the 160-acre site surveyed. Sarah Beaulieu of the University of the Fraser Valley spoke at a news conference where the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation also called for the release of attendance records from the school.

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Racelle Kooy, a spokesperson for the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, said a full copy of Dr. Beaulieu’s report would not be released to the public and media, but that “the core of the findings are contained in the release and Dr. Beaulieu gave an extensive presentation today.”

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology and chair of the Canadian Archeology Association’s unmarked graves working group, said the search that was done in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc employed best practices that have been developed around using ground-penetrating radar, and that she was happy to “confirm the excellent work of Dr. Beaulieu.”

“I’m very reassured by the results presented today, and confident that these results indicate a number of highly probable burials, and targets that definitely warrant further investigation,” said Dr. Supernant, who is considered an expert in using ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked grave sites.

Canadian Archeology Association president Lisa Hodgetts, who also appeared at the press conference in support of the findings, said it was unfortunate that “it took this science to wake the world up to the truth that survivors and their communities have known for years, and is so clearly documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports from 2015.”

Dr. Hodgetts said the working group formed by the Canadian Archeology Association will strive to provide a reliable, independent source of information for other First Nations communities to make informed decisions about how they want to proceed with potential burial sites.

Speaking at Thursday’s press conference, newly elected Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald characterized the findings in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc not as discoveries, but recoveries.

“This agonizing exercise and grim reminder of this country’s history will continue until we recover all of our family members, and bring them home to rest in peace through proper ceremony,” she said. “For many Canadians, and people around the world, these recent recoveries of our children – buried, nameless, unmarked, lost and without ceremony – is shocking and unbelievable, but not for us. We have always known.”

She said the findings released on Thursday show the recovery of our children is not over. “And there will be many reports to come.”

Kukpi7 Casimir said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc have partnered with a group of other First Nations and the University of B.C.’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre to record the testimony of survivors and gather affidavits from researchers.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor and director of that centre, will oversee this work and said it could be used in future legal proceedings.

“The reason why the ground-penetrating radar was done is because the students said ‘I dug a grave here,’ and that is a little bit more than, you know, passing down information in a family that is historic evidence and it has intended weight,” said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and B.C.’s former representative for children and youth.

In a report published last month, Ms. Turpel-Lafond called on Ottawa to establish a public guardian whose office would work with First Nations and be responsible for identifying and protecting these burials – a role she argues the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was blocked from undertaking because of a lack of government funding.

She said any criminal investigation into how these children died should be undertaken by someone or some body independent from the RCMP, preferably experts with policing experience and investigations into missing persons and unmarked graves.

AFN Chief Archibald echoed these sentiments Thursday.

Kukpi7 Casimir said her First Nation has a great relationship with the local RCMP detachment, which sits on the reserve, and spoke with the Mounties there on Wednesday night. She said the RCMP, who have opened an investigation into the remains found down the road from their detachment, have agreed to await further instruction from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

“There’s more dialogue as we follow the evidence and, as it’s disclosed, we will be letting them know how they can come in,” Kukpi7 Casimir said.

An RCMP spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The Kamloops Industrial School opened in 1890, and remained in operation until 1978. Like other residential schools around the country, its Indigenous students were removed from their families and communities and forced to attend, and often suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The announcement in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc made news around the world, and sparked a broad, new public awareness of the treatment many Indigenous children suffered at residential schools.

Lines of children’s shoes began appearing in memorials outside churches and legislative buildings around the country, and in some cases, churches and statues were burned, destroyed or defaced.

A number of announcements of other unmarked gravesites in other communities followed, and many others are expected as Indigenous communities undertake their own work at former residential school sites.

In Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Kukpi7 Casimir said it is an immediate priority to get all documentation and student attendance records from government and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the Kamloops school, which she said will be “of critical importance to identify those lost children.”

She said the community has put forward a budget, and is calling for the provincial and federal governments to commit to “immediate and ongoing funding and support to the community, as they work to document, identify and maintain the remains.

Ani Dergalstanian, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, said the federal government is working with First Nations to help them develop community plans, conduct research and gather knowledge to identify and accurately locate the burial sites of children who died while at residential school.

She said that the federal government has provided more than four million documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, including the attendance records for Kamloops Residential School.

It is not yet clear whether the continuing work on the Kamloops site will involve excavation, but Kukpi7 Casimir said leadership will continue to work with the community as they move forward.

She said she is waiting to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and looks forward to “finalize the details of the federal government providing the needed supports, as well as access to our student records.” Ms. Casimir said she has invited him to the community on Sept. 30, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Speaking at the press conference on Thursday, three community knowledge keepers shared a glimpse of their experiences at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and the long-term effects attending the school has had on their lives.

Evelyn Camille, speaking sometimes through tears, described children she knew who died trying to cross the river and run away, or who left trying to find their way home.

“In Truth and Reconciliation, I often wondered, ‘What the hell does that mean? Do they want to hear the truth, really?’” she said.

Ms. Camille said she understood there may have to be some initial study, but otherwise hopes the burial site would be left undisturbed.

“I had tried to go down there to say prayers. but I couldn’t even cross some line. And I still would like to do that, if I could get permission from whoever is responsible to look after the site,” she said. “You say prayers for the remains that are found. And now that they’re found, we believe that we must guide them home to finish their journey.”

Leona Thomas, who began attending the school at the age of 6 in 1958, said she originally declined to speak at the event on Thursday, but changed her mind because she thought it was important for younger generations to understand what happened.

She described being taken from a loving home, to a cold and hostile environment where she was not allowed to have any contact with her siblings or culture.

“Our identity, our dignity and our self-esteem was really eroded. Our ability to speak. I can’t speak my language today because of what I experienced across that way,” she said. “I’ve tried. I’ve gotten so many beatings for speaking my language that I’m sure there’s a subconscious block that just doesn’t allow me to do it.”

She challenged people to educate themselves on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 97 Calls to Action.

Speaking at the press conference on Thursday, Mona Jules, who started going to the Kamloops Indian Residential School around 1947, remembered her early experiences at the school, and said her 13-year-old sister died there after an illness.

Ms. Jules described her father assaulting the principal after he learned about his daughter’s death, and that her mother, who was very devout and once trusted the church deeply, never went to visit the school again.

Ms. Jules said she later devoted her own life to reviving the language among “anyone and everyone who wanted to learn.”

“I’ve spent the years trying to revive what that school snuffed out,” she said, adding that many youth now speak and teach the language. “And it’s working.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Project has so far documented more than 4,000 children who died at the more than 130 residential schools that once operated around the country. Some survivors told the commission about being forced to bury other children, and residential school survivors and Indigenous communities have long spoken of children who disappeared, died by suicide or were victims of homicide at residential schools.

Federal and provincial leaders have pledged money and support for the work, as part of a national reckoning with the legacy of residential schools, and the impact of the trauma in many families and communities.

National Chief Archibald said she is calling for urgent action on the issue of burial sites, and is looking at ways to heal the trauma experienced in Indigenous communities around the country.

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society , toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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