As news that the remains of 215 children have been found at the site of a former Kamloops residential school weighs heavy on the hearts of many in B.C. and across Canada, the chief of Semiahmoo First Nation says he has to believe there is a reason for the “almost unbelievable” discovery.
“I kind of always have a belief that when our ancestors unearth themselves – when they allow themselves to be found – to me, there’s a purpose and a meaning behind it,” Harley Chappell said Tuesday (June 1).
“I try to be as… hopeful in a very challenging time like this, that something good comes out of it, some understanding or some recognition … of the atrocities that our elders endured.”
In a statement issued May 27, Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said that the remains of the children – who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School – were located on the reserve on the weekend of May 22, through the use of ground-penetrating radar.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Chief Rosanne Casimir said in the release. “Some were as young as three years old.”
Casimir acknowledged that the confirmed loss “affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” and that there are still “more questions than answers” surrounding it.
Chappell – a Chilliwack resident – said for many First Nation communities, finding the lost children validates teachings around a horrific legacy; a knowledge that many have been raised with and continue to struggle to come to terms with.
“This wound that we’ve done so much work to heal from, the scab got ripped off last week,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with the survivors.”
Chappell said his own family has strong ties to the Kamloops school, which operated from 1890 to 1978; its final decade under the administration of the federal government.
His grandfather, Jim Dolan, attended.
“Fortunately, he was one of the ones that came home,” Chappell said.
“He didn’t tell us a lot, as most of our elders didn’t. They didn’t speak a lot of it.
“The going-ons of those schools, our elders wanted to put behind them and move on. A lot of our families have felt the trickle-down effects.”
Chappell confirmed that “a few” SFN elders attended residential schools, but declined to elaborate.
He said the reality of residential schools on First Nations communities is “definitely a missing gap in Canadian history… a sad reminder of the relationship between First Nations and Canada,” but that last week’s discovery – perhaps one of the “post-modern worst findings, catastrophe in Western Canada” – is impossible to ignore.
“There needs to be responsibility taken and there needs to be ownership taken,” Chappell said.
“To me, I hope there’s a lot of answers. But really, there’s not a lot we can do now. We have to learn to heal.
“All we can do, as a nation… we can begin to process, begin to accept the reality of that time – which is unthinkable. That’s our reality, and it’s a harsh reality. I hope that much more of the general public of Canada gains a deeper understanding of the places we’ve been as First Nations people.
While Chappell sees “the support that’s coming” in the the lowering of flags, donning of orange shirts and other tributes, that momentum must be maintained, he said.
He said he often hears comments suggesting it’s time to move past the residential-schools issue; that it’s “an old issue.”
But, as the 215 children’s remains illustrate, “that’s not the reality,” he said.
“We’re going to do our best to support each other… to have prayers to have those little souls brought home.”
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866) 925-4419. Alternately, you can reach out the KUU-US Crisis Line Society 24-hour line at 1-800-588-8717.
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