Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A rainbow breaks over the former Kamloops Residential School on May 23, 2022.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The leader of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc says it is still working its way through consultations with other neighbouring First Nations before beginning any excavation of the residential school site that made global headlines three years ago.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told reporters at a joint press conference with the Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver Thursday that her First Nation is still working with survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School to catalogue their oral histories of their time there. With this work still going, she said there is no timetable for an excavation. The First Nation announced in 2021 that ground-penetrating radar had identified about 200 probable unmarked graves on the grounds of the former residential school.

“We have not started excavation – that is a very sensitive step moving forward and definitely would entail a lot of steps in place and conversations and working with our survivors and our community, but also the nations that have also been impacted,” she said. “We’re still at the oral tellings, with the truth-telling part of it.”

Racelle Kooy, a spokesperson for the First Nation, added that most of the students at the school – which was at one time the largest in the federal system – were drawn from four Nations in the wider region but also other Indigenous pupils sent from farther-flung territories.

The Tk’emlúps announcement on May 27, 2021, that a specialist had found the potential remains of more than 200 children made international headlines and matched scientific rigour with the oral histories of deaths reported by many First Nations survivors of the education system. It also renewed pressure on Pope Francis to visit Canada, which happened in the summer of 2022.

Sarah Beaulieu, a modern conflict anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, said in the summer of 2021, several weeks after her team’s preliminary findings were released, that the discovery can’t be confirmed unless excavations are done at the scene.

Thursday’s press conference was to announce a “sacred covenant” agreement between the Nation and the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver by which the church will share records and information as the community continues to investigate the site.

The Nation and the archdiocese say the agreement includes commitments from the church on how to properly memorialize residential school survivors, information sharing about missing children and to offer “healing services” to family members of those who attended the school.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, who will attend a formal ceremony on Tk’emlúps territory on Easter Sunday, said the agreement opens a “new chapter” in the relationship between First Nations and the church, which recognizes its complicity in the Canadian government’s colonialist policies toward First Nations and the “resulting tragedies” from the residential school system.

He said his archdiocese has so far spent $1.2-million of the $2.5-million it has committed to Indigenous projects aimed at healing and reconciliation. But he could not say how much money his archdiocese had contributed to residential school survivors through the agreement reached with Canadian Catholic entities years ago.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest of the more than 130 schools that operated across Canada between the 1870s and 1996, which as many as 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended, despite the pleas of their families. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 4,100 children who died of diseases or accidents while at the schools. Estimates of children who went missing from the schools are as high as 6,000.

Mr. Miller said at the press conference he was distressed by a growing movement in Canada to deny the harms caused by the residential school system.

“Of course, we do not back up or support those who deny the tragic events in Kamloops and at residential schools,” he said. “There’s no question that this was a tragedy in the past and those who claim that it wasn’t I think are certainly misplaced in their judgment.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe