Warning: This story contains details of residential schools and the abuse that took place there.
KAMLOOPS, B.C.—Even to a casual observer, the weight of what unfolded Monday afternoon outside the aging red-brick building that used to house the Kamloops Indian Residential School could not be mistaken.
Under a blazing sun and against a steady beat of drums, a small group of young Indigenous adults formed a semi-circle around a small, wooden classroom chair and led the couple of dozen observers present in songs of mourning. Even with busy Highway 5 in the distance, an intimate hush fell over the scene.
Over the past several days, this former school site has become the focal point of a nationwide discussion of the dark legacy of Canada’s residential schools after the reported discovery of 215 children’s remains in an unmarked burial site nearby.
But this moment was about paying respects to ancestors and about honouring the lives of the children lost.
“Each song is sacred prayer,” said Viviane Rose Sandy, 71, a Williams Lake Band elder, who was among those in attendance. She had three siblings who attended the Kamloops school.
“Each song is doctoring us and healing the earth and those children.”
Dozens of flowers and stuffed animals left by well-wishers ringed a tree nearby.
“No words, just cries,” said one of many handwritten messages left behind.
“I’m sorry for what we did,” said another.
Lanterns with stuffed animals or shoes next to them, representing each child lost, lined the grass overlooking a soccer field.
Though the ceremony itself was sombre, some participants took the opportunity afterwards to vent their frustrations.
Robert Williams, who led the gathering and hails from the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation on Vancouver Island, said last week’s revelation has left him “deeply angered.”
“Definitely feeling the intergenerational, historical effects of genocide,” he said. “I can’t believe this country hired people to do this to children deliberately.”
Another member of the group he had travelled with found the United Nations’ definition of genocide online and read it aloud.
Everyone nodded their heads in agreement: How could what happened at the school not be considered that?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s characterization of the residential school system as an act of “cultural genocide” seems like an attempt to “downplay” what took place, Williams said.
“Are police going to be investigating?” he asked. “Is there going to be justice for people who worked here? If they’re still alive?”
“Can we sue?” he continued, for loss of language and traditions?
In a statement late Monday, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation expressed gratitude for the support the community has received. Saying the community was still gathering facts about what transpired at the school, she said “Canada must face ownership and accountability.”
“Regrettably, we know that many more children are unaccounted for. We have heard that the same knowing of unmarked burial sites exists at other former residential school grounds.”
After the local Saint Joseph’s church had recently been vandalized, Casimir appealed for calm.
“We understand the many emotions connected to a Roman Catholic run residential school. At the same time, we respect the choices that Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc ancestors made, over a 100 years ago, to erect this church.”
Colleen Jacob, chief of the Xaxli’p First Nation in Lillooet, said she attended the Kamloops school just prior to its closure in the 1970s.
She was seven years old. Her brother had started there a year earlier.
Glancing over her shoulder, she recalled arriving in a van at the front driveway and thinking to herself, “Where am I going?”
Inside, she was taken to the second floor and led down a hallway in the opposite direction of her brother.
She recalled a staff member rummaging through the clothes her mother had neatly folded.
“She took them and I knew I wouldn’t see those clothes again,” she said.
That’s what these schools were all about: separation.
“It separated the brothers and sisters. It’s like you lose that connection almost. You have to work to get it back.”
Sandy said she attended a different residential school, St. Joseph’s Mission School. One of her lingering memories, she said, was being punished for writing with her left hand.
“Those are the horrifying things we’ve got to live with. I can talk about it because now I can say it and I don’t feel ashamed anymore. That’s what they wanted. They wanted me ... feeling shame and rejection.”
On Monday, Sandy brought along her own drum covered with deer hide.
Every drumbeat sends vibrations to Mother Earth, she explained. Those vibrations transport each prayer and thought contained in the songs.
Amidst the drumming Monday, in the wake of so much tragedy newly revisited and such freshly stirred anguish and outrage, it did not go unnoticed that when the prayer songs transitioned from a song of mourning to a song of love, a female mule deer emerged in the distance.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419
Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan