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The gut-wrenching confirmation of Le Estcwicwéy̓ — the missing — leaked first within the community, devastating many who found themselves at home alone at the time or reading it in a letter.
Painful memories of abuse, neglect and being stripped of everything it meant to be Indigenous resurfaced for those who survived the institution’s harrowing halls. All mourned deeply.
“It’s something that shook everyone to the core. It shook me to the core as parent, as a mother,” said Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir in a press conference on Wednesday.
“Every time I think about that or I see something on the news in regards to parents and children, it’s very traumatizing.”
Four days later, on May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc revealed news of Le Estcwicwéy̓ to the rest of the world, making international headlines.
Grief and anger rippled across Canada, forcing its residents to reckon with the violence of its colonial foundation. Reporters flocked to Tk‘emlúpsemc territory as mourners laid little shoes at church and school doorsteps to honour those who never made it home from residential schools.
It was a moment of unity, said Casimir, who has since been launched into the national spotlight as a leader in the movement of truth and reconciliation for Indigenous peoples.
“The residential school impacted so many non-Indigenous people as well. It was children that brought us together. We mourned together and we grieved together,” she said, as the community prepares for the one-year memorial for Le Estcwicwéy̓ on May 23.
“We were grappling with the devastation of the historical past and the impacts of residential school, and looking at the legal parameters of what we have to do next too.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has carefully paced archaeological and scientific work associated with Le Estcwicwéy̓. In Secwepemc culture, it’s traditional to grieve a loss for one year.
On Monday, the community will host an anniversary memorial for the 215 children at its Powwow Arbour along the banks of the South Thompson River. All are welcome to attend.
“People want to learn about First Nations, they want to be educated on the true historical impacts of residential school and for many, this is about our collective history,” said Casimir.
“It’s about those meaningful steps moving forward and that’s at every level.”
Canada is still has a long way to go when it comes to reconciliation, Casimir noted.
There have been blunders in the past year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, snubbed an invitation to visit Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and vacationed in Tofino, B.C. instead.
In a subsequent visit to make up for it, he falsely claimed the federal government had sent all its records on residential schools to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Ottawa committed to work with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc on building a healing centre, the vision for which includes an elder’s lodge and museum of local artifacts and history. Casimir said Wednesday she’ll be “following up” with the federal government to determine the next steps.
Meanwhile, First Nations across Canada have detected thousands of tiny unmarked burial sites at former residential school grounds using ground-penetrating radar. Many searches are still underway.
The federal government has committed $320 million over several years to help nations search burial sites at former residential schools, and to support survivors and their communities. It also promised to appoint a special interlocutor to advance justice on residential schools, but no one has been named yet.
The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops pledged $30 million over five years to fund healing and reconciliation initiatives nationwide, but has also not provided details of the fundraising campaign.
Casimir said there is “no set of guidelines, no checklists” for communities navigating the memorialization of missing children. More ground-penetrating radar work needs to be done before exhumation takes place in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, she added.
International experts will weigh in with best practices and other First Nations will be invited to participate and learn from their experience, she said.
“This is not something that has happened in the history here in Canada,” Casimir explained. “All we know know is one — honour protocols and moving forward, making sure that we being in those who need to support us on those steps.”
Monday’s anniversary will begin with a sunrise ceremony at 5 a.m., followed by several cultural performances, including pipe carriers, drumming and jingle dress dancing, that will wrap up around 7 p.m. Cultural and mental health supports will be available throughout the day.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
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