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The red-bricked institution of assimilation is a haunting visual landmark. Its doors have been shuttered since 1978, but its darkened windows still overlook the South Thompson River in B.C.’s central Interior.
Many of its survivors had always known about Le Estcwicwéy̓ — the missing children — and the preliminary findings of ground-penetrating radar only confirmed their deepest fears.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc mourned for a traditional one-year period, and on Monday, welcomed visitors from across the country to join them in a memorial for the ones who never made it home.
“May I stand here and pray and may you release them,” said event volunteer Shelby Symes, holding her hands up in prayer outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School on Monday morning.
“May you take their hand and finally walk them home.”
The 19-year-old from Ashcroft Indian Band, wearing the orange of the Every Child Matters campaign, described Le Estcwicwéy̓ as “fighters.” She said she felt compelled to help at the memorial for her ancestors who attended residential schools.
“I cannot sing, I cannot dance, I cannot drum, but I will stand.”
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Powwow Arbour is just a stone’s throw away from the former residential school site. An open, circular space of celebration, ceremony and healing, it represents everything the institution of assimilation tried to destroy.
The memorial began with prayers and a private sunrise ceremony. Hundreds attended the speeches, songs and dances that followed, filling the bleachers with colourful ribbon skirts and regalia.
Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir wore her own jingling, beaded regalia and feather headdress. She thanked community members, political and Indigenous partners, and organizations for all the support they’ve received in caring for and memorializing Le Estcwicwéy̓.
“This truly is a shared journey,” she told the crowd, smiling. “Real reconciliation starts with good relationships and partnerships and being there through the best and the worst of times.”
Addressing the missing children directly, Casimir said, “We love you, we honour you.” At 2:15 p.m. in the afternoon, a minute of silence was observed for them.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon attended the morning half of the memorial, in addition to several municipal and provincial politicians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived later in the afternoon.
While Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc grieved privately for several days before revealing Le Estcwicwéy̓ to the rest of Canada, the missing children quickly catalyzed a national reckoning on reconciliation.
“A year ago, everyone was deeply traumatized, they were in a state of shock,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “There was this kaleidoscope of emotions, anger.
“Now we’re a year out and we’ve had time to reflect on what the discovery of the unmarked graves means … I think we’re in a place now where we’re looking forward.”
The gut-wrenching discovery of what lay beneath the old orchard has forced many to confront the truth about residential schools. The state- and church-sponsored institutions were built to destroy Indigenous identities, and in the process, subjected children to cruel and sometimes fatal forms of abuse.
Days after the unmarked burial sites were announced last year, flags were lowered to half-mast around the country. Little shoes, a symbol of those who died in residential schools, were placed at the doorsteps of churches, schools and government buildings.
Some communities cancelled Canada Day celebrations to focus on healing and reconciliation. The federal government, meanwhile, declared its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation would take place on Sept. 30, 2021 — answering a six-year-old call from the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In the months that followed, thousands of suspected unmarked burial sites were detected at former school grounds in several provinces as First Nations undertook ground-penetrating radar searches.
The time for saying, “we didn’t know” is over, said Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, who sat next to Casimir at the arbour. A bright orange Every Child Matters flag fluttered in the wind behind her as the ceremony unfolded.
“It’s up to all of us across the country to tell the stories of these kids, no different than any other child … to say in one voice, we failed you. We can never let that happen again.”
Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, vowed to carry forward the “sacred responsibility” of sharing the stories of Le Estcwicwéy̓ for the duration of her appointment. After touring the former residential school grounds on Sunday, she said she was filled with horror and anger by all the “lives gone unfilled.”
Nevertheless, she ended her speech with a message of hope for a Canada where Indigenous peoples “where we truly belong without giving up who we are.”
“There is always hope — hope that the preservation of these places, the stories told and retold will bring about understanding and respect,” she said. “It shouldn’t have taken that long but finally people know, and knowing has transformed this community … I hope today contributes to that process of healing.”
Earlier this month, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed another round of radar searches will begin on its territory later this week. That work will take more than a month to complete.
In July, some survivors of Kamloops Indian Residential School are expected to travel to Edmonton to see Pope Francis on his reconciliation pilgrimage to Canada. He will also stop in Iqaluit and Quebec City.
Casimir reiterated her profound disappointment on Monday that the Holy Father will not stop in Kamloops, given the widespread national and international impact of Le Estcwicwéy̓. She had hand-delivered him an invitation during a historic delegation of Indigenous peoples to the Vatican.
That delegation wrapped up last month with Francis issuing an apology for the “deplorable conduct” of some clergy members in residential schools. The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops has said it expects him to make similar public statements on Canadian soil.
“The unmarked graves brought truth to the world and the world stood with us in solidarity and unity,” said Casimir.
“My hope is for reconciliation — and I’m going to hold onto that hope — and that reparations are mandated from the highest levels, and that leadership and everyone participates in that journey.”
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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