Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said he “filled with deep sadness at the troubling news,” in a statement published by the B.C. Catholic.
“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring light to every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church,” he said. “The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”
The remains of the children were discovered the weekend of May 22, with the use of ground-penetrating radar. It is unknown how the children died, or who they were. The deaths are believed to have been undocumented.
The Kamloops Industrial School, later renamed the Kamloops Indian Residential School, began operations in 1890. The school was administered by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1893 until 1969, when the Canadian government took control of the school again. At that point, the school building operated as a residence for First Nations children who were attending area day schools. The residence was closed in 1978.
At one point, the Kamloops school was the largest residential school in the country.
Previously, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - a commission that lasted from 2008 to 2015, aimed at documenting the history and lasting impacts of the country’s residential schools - found that 51 children had died at the Kamloops Residential School.
The commission said that an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the country’s residential schools. The last federally-run residential school in Canada closed in 1996.
According to the commission’s findings, the residential school system placed First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in boarding schools and separated them from their families, in an effort to strip them of their cultures and force assimilation.
In a statement released by Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc band on May 27, Chief Roseanne Casimir confirmed the discovery of the remains, saying the graves were “spoken about but never documented by the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
The graves were discovered due to a grant that funded the use of ground-penetrating radar. The site is still being examined.
“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” said Casimir.
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“We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended are duly informed. This is the beginning but, given the nature of this news, we felt it important to share immediately. At this time we have more questions than answers. We look forward to providing updates as they become available,” Casimir said.
One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action was an apology from the pope “to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” The apology should be “similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse,” the commission noted.