Skip to main content

Sarah Beaulieu’s presentation Thursday of the results of her ground-penetrating radar scan of two acres around the former Kamloops residential school wove the technical science with the oral record of some of the horrors that went on there.

It was the first time the public learned the detailed findings behind the shocking revelation at the end of May that the unmarked graves of some 200 residential schoolchildren were believed to have been located on the grounds of the school.

The news garnered international attention and touched off a series of similar announcements by Indigenous groups in Western Canada, while others have announced plans to begin a search.

Dr. Beaulieu, from the University of the Fraser Valley outside Vancouver, has about a decade of experience searching for historic grave sites, including working with the RCMP and other First Nations communities.

Using slides, she showed what she said were “multiple signatures that present like burials.”

The GPR results by themselves do not state definitively that a burial site has been found, much less who it might belong to. So she explained how those results must be taken into account along with a human element as context. She said the discoveries about 20 years ago of a child’s tooth and a juvenile rib bone found by a tourist combined with the stories of elders and knowledge keepers led to the search of an orchard area around the former school.

Former students told of pupils at the school being required to dig the graves, which helps explain why the markers found by GPR are relatively shallow and relatively small, Dr. Beaulieu explained.

“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.”

Still, she said, the certainty of the remains cannot be known for certain without digging: “We do need to say that they are probable, until one excavates.”

Whether the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and other area Indigenous Nations whose members attended the schools want that to happen will be a question for a long time to come. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said more work first needs to be done on the larger, 160-acre site – work that is likely to turn up more burial sites.

An immediate priority is 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.”

Speaking at the news 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.”

Globe columnist Tanya Talaga, who was in Kamloops on Thursday, wrote that the federal government and the Catholic Church still have much to do to atone for the cultural genocide perpetrated by the schools.

“Little graves dug by little people,” she wrote.

“Why aren’t the findings at the Kamloops school being made an example of by Ottawa, with all the country’s weight thrown behind the community, to act as a template of how to proceed finding the loved ones of all these lost children?

“Throw open the doors. Create and unleash the investigative powers of a commissioner who can turn over any stone they damn well please and compel evidence to be disclosed. Do not put a price tag on the truth of this country.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.