Tk'emlups te Secwepemc prepare to mark one year since confirmation of evidence of unmarked graves

It has been almost exactly one year since the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed evidence of what elders and residential school survivors had been saying for years about missing children being buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The First Nation made the announcement to the world on May 27, four days after ground penetrating radar showed 215 possible unmarked graves at the site.

“When I first shared the news, it was devastating for many of our community members,” said Kúkpi7 Roseanne Casimir, Chief of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc. “It’s something that shook everyone to the core, and you know, it shook me to the core.”

On Monday, the First Nation will mark the sombre anniversary with a day of ceremony and solemn reflection.

“The memorial is going to be open to the public. We’re going to be welcoming everyone to come and participate and to be a part of the ceremony as well,” Casimir said.

The confirmation of the 215 potential graves in Kamloops served as a catalyst for a series of events across the country over the last 12 months.

Other First Nations began using ground penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves at the sites of other former residential schools and hundreds have been found.

Just one month after the Kamloops announcement, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan confirmed it located 751 suspected unmarked graves.

On Wednesday, Saddle Lake First Nation called on the federal government to provide funding for a thorough search after finding unmarked graves near the former Blue Quills Indian Residential School.

NATIONAL DAY FOR TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

In the weeks leading up to July 1, grief and sorrow turned to anger for many Canadians.

Several Canada Day celebrations were replaced by marches and sombre ceremonies to honour residential school survivors and the children who never made it home.

“When I reflect from the day I had to share with the world the findings of the unmarked graves, and knowing that it has not only impacted myself, the community, those that live here, but has impacted the world,” said Casimir. “It just goes to show how connected and interconnected all of us are.”

In September, the federal government announced that September 30 would be a new national holiday called Truth and Reconciliation Day.

Casimir sent two invitations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the community to take part in a day of ceremony and sombre reflection on that day.

Trudeau did not respond to those requests, and instead flew over Kamloops on his way to Tofino for a family beach vacation.

The Prime Minister was very contrite on a hastily arranged visit three weeks later when he said he deeply regretted his decision.

“But I am here today to take the hand extended by the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc and so many Indigenous Canadians across the country who have every reason in the world to feel pessimistic, and bleak about the future,” he said at the time.

PAPAL APOLOGY, VISIT

In April, a delegation of Indigenous, Métis and Inuit leaders visited the Vatican for a historic apology from Pope Francis.

“With all my heart, I am very sorry,” the Pope said, while promising to visit Canada.

He is widely expected to repeat his apology when he makes the trip in July. A stop in Kamloops is not on his itinerary. He is not scheduled to visit B.C. at all.

All of these events over the last 12 months can be traced back to the announcement of the 215 unmarked children’s graves in Kamloops.

“It was the children. It was children that brought us together. And that we mourn together and we grieve together,” said Casimir. “For many this is about our collective history and it’s about those meaningful steps moving forward.”

Further steps for the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc could include exhuming the remains so the missing children can be returned to their home communities with dignity.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.