Percy Casper, 73, spent 10 years as a child at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
He spent the last year crying.
A member of the Bonaparte Indian Band near Cache Creek, British Columbia, Casper said he was deeply distraught when he heard the news last May, when Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, Chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation, announced that a war graves expert using radar had located 215 presumed unmarked graves at the site of the old school.
So Casper wept, for his lost classmates and for himself. His emotions boiled over into a painful knot when indigenous leaders later traveled to the Vatican to meet the pope who represents the church he says abused him.
But his spirits were lifted by strangers, he said.
“Families have come up to me and literally reached out and said they’re ashamed of who they are because of what we’ve been through,” he said.
Casper’s emotional journey echoes a year of judgment for Canada as it confronts the legacy of its residential school system for Indigenous children. Discoveries in an old apple orchard would reverberate from the interior of British Columbia to Ottawa, the Vatican and beyond.
The discovery represented what Casimir called at the time, an “unimaginable loss”. The existence of unmarked graves was “knowledge” among school survivors and elders, but the high-tech investigation represented confirmation for Canada, she said.
The detection of hundreds of other alleged residential school-related graves across the country would follow.
Professor Geoff Bird, an anthropologist at Royal Roads University’s School of Communication and Culture in Victoria, said the unmarked graves represent a profound moment in the country’s history.
“The discovery of children buried in residential schools across the country was perhaps, I would say, the most traumatic event in recent Canadian history in terms of defining who we are,” Bird said.
“When you actually have a discovery like this, it can do nothing but impact the nation and its perception of itself,” he said.
Bird, an expert on cultural memory and wartime heritage, said Canada cannot ignore the harsh realities of the residential school experience, even as it grapples with other issues, such as climate change or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole realm of cultural memory is what we remember, what we forget, what we hide,” he said. “We cannot be blind to our own history.”
There have been previous attempts to deal with this story. A 4,000-page report released in 2015 by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed abuse at residential schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths in the facilities.
The report cites records of at least 51 children who died at the Kamloops school between 1914 and 1963. In 1918, officials believed children at the school were not being properly fed, leading to malnutrition, notes The report.
But the findings last May would pierce the national gaze in a way that a written report, no matter how grim, could not.
The Kamloops boarding school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
“When you look at other nations around the world that have made their efforts toward truth and reconciliation, those are hard things to come to terms with in a nation’s past,” Bird said.
The moment of reckoning has extended overseas. China, for example, has said that Canada should not criticize other countries on human rights issues, as unmarked graves of missing children have been discovered on its own soil.
“I think those kinds of situations, with, say, China, are just examples to dilute the focus on their lack of human rights internally,” Bird said.
On the other hand, a visit to Canada this summer by Pope Francis “will be a powerful and symbolic act,” Bird said. Indigenous leaders visited Francis at the Vatican last month, urging him to apologize for the church’s damage to boarding schools.
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness, and I want to tell you with all my heart, I am truly sorry,” Francis said.
Kamloops school survivor Garry Gottfriedson, 69, an internationally known poet, said people from outside Canada often ask him about the Kamloops burial site.
At a recent international book fair in Bogota, Colombia, where he served as keynote speaker, Gottfriedson said many people asked about indigenous issues in Canada.
“The questions were about this specific topic and why Canada is not doing anything about it,” he said. “People from abroad know what’s going on here.”
Gottfriedson, who provides curriculum guidance and counseling at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops on Secwepemc Nation cultural protocols and practices, said any act of recognition would help because Canada had up to now to do to come to terms with the history of residential schools.
Over the past year, many Canadians have sent messages of support and understanding, Gottfriedson said, adding that much of the correspondence has come from immigrants to Canada.
“The Sikh people of Surrey, I have been invited to a feast,” he said. “I am a poet. They read my work. It was beautiful. The message was: ‘You are not alone’.
All acts of recognition and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, large or small, were steps toward national healing, Bird said.
“It’s about addressing, in an open and transparent way, what’s happened over the decades and not silencing it and not forgetting it,” Bird said. “It is a symbolic action at the moment. Acts of memory, very visible and very powerful acts of reconciliation.
Professor Nicole Schabus, an expert in Indigenous and environmental law at Thompson Rivers University, said the unmarked grave finds had led many of the school’s survivors to seek a deeper sense of healing.
The graves also left the chilling issue of genocide on Canadian soil.
“You need international oversight,” she said. “Canada cannot investigate itself. The forced removal of children from their families with the intention of taking away their culture is genocide.
The outpouring of shock and emotion by many Canadians could signal a new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, Bird said, calling it a watershed moment.
“The little shoes on the steps of the Legislature are powerful images,” Bird said, referring to how protesters used children’s shoes to represent the lives lost at residential schools. “When we think of children, we can all relate to the terror and trauma of that. It crosses all cultures.
Casper said he was grateful for the acknowledgment of his experiences and the shared grief from strangers.
“They showed remorse and I really appreciate that,” he said.
—Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press