Experts: Lack of care in residential schools further complicate identifying children found in unmarked graves

Harvey McLeod survived the Kamloops residential school.

But the chief of the Upper Nicola Band, who lived in the brick buildings that sit steps away from the probable graves of 215 children, remembers the day he arrived, in September 1966, like it was yesterday.

“Life changed when I got there,” McLeod said. “It didn’t take long. It took an hour.”

McLeod, who was 12 at the time, recalls how he was separated from his brothers and sisters that morning and how his suitcase with his brand new clothes was taken away.

He never saw it again.

Over half a century later, when McLeod heard the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announce the potential graves of hundreds of children on the former residential school grounds, he was floored.

“I was devastated,” McLeod said. “I was hurt. And there was that little boy laying on the floor realizing the rumours, the secrets, going around in the school were true.”

McLeod personally knows families that are missing a sibling.

Relatives that have carried the hurt, he said, for decades upon decades.

And he wants every lost child to feel what he felt when he left the Kamloops school in 1968: “For them to know they’re loved, and they’re going to come home,” McLeod said.

SCHOOLS ASSIGNED NAMES, NUMBERS TO ERASE CULTURE AND IDENTITY

Tricia Logan says the survivors have always known about their fellow students that died, disappeared or never made it home.

And the discovery in Kamloops, the historian said, only reinforces the stories of physical and sexual abuse, disease, neglect, and malnutrition that survivors have been sharing for decades.

“A lot of people describe their time as dehumanization and being treated like animals,” said Logan, the head of research and engagement at UBC’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

Schools also gave students English or French names, and numbers, often tattooed on their arms, Logan said, as part of an effort to forcibly take away their identity, part of a system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted, that amounted to cultural genocide.

Those changes in names and spellings, along with the fact those who operated the schools often kept poor records, could further complicate efforts to identify those who didn’t make it home.

“I think a big part of understanding residential school history is how inconsistent the records are,” Logan said.

'LACK OF CONCERN' REFLECTED IN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL RECORDS

Raymond Frogner understands those challenges first hand.

As the head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, Frogner has first-hand knowledge of the chasms in the paper trail.

He points to the fact that the federal government didn’t require schools to even document student deaths until 1935.

And out of those Frogner’s team has located, in 49 per cent of records that indicate a child’s death, he said, the cause of death isn’t documented.

In 23 per cent, the gender of the student isn’t identified.

“It was a general lack of concern that these people are responsible for the lives of these children,” Frogner said. “And, again, it’s reflected in the record keeping.”

The National Student Memorial, part of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, identified 51 children who died at the Kamloops school.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc believe the remains of the 215 children found last month are not included in that number.

Canada-wide, Frogner said work has confirmed the deaths of 4,117 children at residential schools.

But he cautions: “that’s after only going through about a million of our 5 million documents.”

NO MENTION OF DEATHS AND BURIALS IN KAMLOOPS SCHOOL RECORDS

At the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, another head archivist is paging through, file by file, box by box.

There are an estimated 250 boxes waiting for Genevieve Webber’s attention.

Many of the records come from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated the Kamloops school, and nearly half of all residential schools across the country.

The Oblates, amidst objections from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc of missing files, say they are working to turn over anything they have left.

Webber, who’s been working through the files for the past two years, is expecting to learn more about living conditions at the Kamloops school.

But her expectations for information that can help trace lost children’s identities, is low.

“We haven’t found any records that explicitly talk about deaths and burials,” she said.

She hopes to share what she has found with the First Nation in the coming weeks.

Chief Harvey McLeod says, whatever is found, it’s about sharing the truth.

It must be shared, he says.

And whether or not the 215 children, who he affectionately calls “babies,” can be identified, this is an opportunity, he believes, to finally bring them home.

“Whether we bring them home physically or bring them home spiritually,” McLeod said. “We’re bringing their spirit home.”