People sing and drum outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

People sing and drum outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Identifying children’s remains at B.C. residential school stalled by lack of records

Expert: response from politicians, church officials that Kamloops discovery is “shocking” rings hollow

A lack of access to records and first-hand data would hinder the ability to identify the remains of 215 children found at a former residential school in Kamloops, says the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said the federal government and churches have fought over making the school records available to groups working to identify victims of the residential school system for more than 20 years.

“It’s just so frustrating, it’s so frustrating to the communities, so frustrating to the families and it’s something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fought for every single year of its existence,” she said in an interview.

The response from politicians and church officials that the discovery is “shocking” rings hollow, she said, as Indigenous people have tried to raise awareness about the issue for years.

Indigenous children from 36 communities across B.C.’s Interior are recorded as having attended the school, while data collected by the history and dialogue centre lists 38 additional communities from where children were sent to the school between 1943 and 1952.

Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and former judge who is of Cree and Scottish descent, said she’s also heard anecdotal evidence of children from Alberta and Yukon attending the school, which had a peak enrolment of up to 500 students in the 1950s.

It was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969 as a residential school before it was taken over by the federal government to serve as a local day school until 1978.

The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said last week that the remains of the 215 children were found by a ground-penetrating radar specialist.

The work to identify the remains would have to compare sources including oral history, church records, records from local authorities and lists of children who may have returned home to their respective communities in one year but not the next, Turpel-Lafond said.

“To me, the dead children themselves in this Kamloops school, and others, have human rights,” she said. “We have an obligation to them to provide respect for the deceased and take practical steps to address the indignity that might’ve been done to them and their bodies.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of 51 children dying at the school.

First Nations communities are still battling the federal government and Catholic Church in court to access school records, Turpel-Lafond said.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran about 47 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, including the one in Kamloops. The Oblates have refused to release their records to help identify the remains found and did not return a request for comment on the matter.

Father Ken Thorson, the provincial superior of the Oblates, said in a statement earlier this week that the order is growing into a “deepening awareness” of the harm to Indigenous people caused by colonization and the role it played.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of the Vancouver archdiocese said Catholic organizations should release their records.

“We will be fully transparent with our archives and records regarding all residential schools, and strongly urge all other Catholic and government organizations to do the same,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Even if that information was available, a forensic human identification expert said the community faces further hurdles in finding relevant DNA comparisons to identify the victims where direct descendants are no longer alive.

Megan Bassendale, the director of the Vancouver-based company Forensic Guardians International, said the process of DNA analysis can take time.

“It’s long, it’s expensive and it has to be done really well the first time. If you lose the trust of the families, then it’s over,” said Bassendale, who previously worked to help identify remains found in mass grave sites in former republics of the Soviet Union.

Finding close DNA data, such as a mother or father of the victim, or identifying features from health and dental records may be hard at a site that operated for decades, she added.

Bassendale said it may require scientists to test DNA from a mother and father’s family lines to narrow down who the person could be, which is a more complex process.

However, she is hopeful identities can be found.

“We know how to do this; it’s not new. It’s not even uncommon,” Bassendale said. “It’s uncommon for Canada.”

Turpel-Lafond said she’s optimistic answers can be found, if groups co-operate.

“Can it be done? Yes,” she said. “I’m absolutely confident if we had access to all of the records, government records, oral history and we have people co-operating.”

—Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Survivor of B.C. residential school breaking silence and calling for action

RELATED: Residential school demolition to help close door on dark period

residential schools

Just Posted

Local hiker Kara Ruff captured this double rainbow hiking Ripple Rock near Campbell River on June 15. Photo courtesy Kara Ruff.
Local hiker captures double rainbow

Double rainbow photographed from Ripple Rock trail viewpoint

BC Ferries’ newest Island Class vessel is experiencing an issue with one of its thrusters off the Algerian coast. Photo courtesy patbaywebcam.com.
BC Ferries newest vessel having mechanical issues in Mediterranean

Island 4 will be repaired in Spain before crossing Atlantic

A Photo from Sept. 2020, when First Nations and wild salmon advocates took to the streets in Campbell River to protest against open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s waters. On Dec. 17, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out 19 fish farms from Discovery Islands. Cermaq’s application to extend leases and transfer smolts was denied. (Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror)
Discovery Island fish farms not allowed to restock

Transfer of 1.5 million juvenile salmon, licence extension denied

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

Most Read