‘It still just gives me shivers’: Relatives of residential school survivors grapple with Kamloops discovery

'It still just gives me shivers': Relatives of residential school survivors grapple with Kamloops discovery
WatchAs vigils paying tribute to the 215 children emerge, many are still working through trauma linked to residential schools in Kamloops and on Vancouver Island. Kori Sidaway reports.

From flags at half-mast to 215 tiny pairs of shoes dotting public spaces.

Many are unable to hold back their emotions, after the news of 215 children’s bodies, some as young as three, were found in a mass unmarked grave on a Kamloops residential school’s land.

“I struggled to find words to express my horror and grief, and realized it’s because there are no words,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer.

“There are no words that can make right a deliberate and intentional system that was — to extinguish Indigenous people.”

It’s a dark chapter in Canadian history: the state-funded residential school system took place across the country for a century.

And Vancouver Island is not exempt. Federal records show five residential schools operated here, as well as other day schools.

“It still just gives me shivers to think about. I couldn’t imagine someone taking my daughter away,” said Colleen Smith, whose mother Margaret Wilson, was ripped from her family and forced to attend St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay for eight years.

“The teacher would pull out a black book and they’d sit there in silence, scared, wondering whose name they were going to call because whoever’s name was in that book, was going to get beaten,” said Smith.

CHEK’s Rob Shaw breaks down how politicians reacted to the grim discovery Monday at the B.C. Legislature.

Wilson also recounted barely having anything to eat and dehumanizing conditions where she was reduced to a number.

“She was never called by her name, she was called number five,” said Smith.

Today Margaret Wilson is named and remembered as a survivor of the residential school system at a vigil in Victoria.

But many other unidentified children didn’t make it home.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found records of 3,200 documented children’s deaths within residential schools.

For 32 per cent of those documented deaths though, no name wasn’t recorded.

A national student death register has since been created, which currently contains 4,118 children, and is being maintained by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Research efforts are ongoing and the number of children listed is expected to increase over time, as is the number of mass graves found at other residential school sites.

So what was killing the kids? The report says largely, tuberculosis and living conditions.

“Tuberculosis was the cause of death in 48.7% of the cases for which there is a reported cause of death (on the Named and Unnamed registers combined,” reads the TRC report.

“A child’s vulnerability to tuberculosis and ability to recover from the infection was in large measure governed by diet, sanitary conditions, ventilation, quality of clothing, and physical strength. Due to limited government funding, students in most schools were malnourished, quartered in crowded and unsanitary facilities, poorly clothed, and overworked. The fact that the government was not able to impose and maintain a screening mechanism that kept infected students out of the schools meant that the schools amplified an existing tuberculosis crisis in the Aboriginal community.”

The report also found that cost was the main driving concern in deciding where a dead student should be buried.

“Students who died at school were rarely sent home unless their parents could afford to pay for transportation. Unless they lived in close proximity to the school, most parents could not afford such costs. As a result, it is likely that most students who died at residential school were buried in either a nearby mission cemetery or a residential school cemetery,” reads the report.

Back in 2015, he TRC recommended ‘a national strategy for the documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries’.

Exactly what some Indigenous people are calling for again, today.

“What I hope we can compel the government to do, is to follow up now and do that work that the TRC recommended all those years ago,” said Lou-Ann Neel, who helped organized the Monday’s vigil in Victoria.

Today though is about remembering, the tiny feet that would have fit, into the tiny little shoes.

All 215 of them.

With files from Canadian Press and Rob Shaw.


Support services are available for anyone impacted by the news.

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

The B.C. KUU-US Crisis Line Society also has 24-hour services available toll-free at 1-800-588-8717 or online here. A youth line is also available at 250-723-2040, and an adult line is available at 250-723-4050.

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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