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

Children from 36 communities are recorded as having attended the school

VANCOUVER — 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 politiciansand church officialsthat 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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3,2021.

residential schools

Just Posted

A small selection of shoes line a step at the municipal government building in Sylvan Lake, with each pair representing a vicitm of residential schools in Canada. Tracey Greinke placed the first pair of shoes on the steps, hoping more would follow. (Photo by Megan Roth/Black Press news services)
Sylvan Lake woman sets up small memorial for residential school victims

Tracey Grienke placed a pair of moccasins on the steps of town hall, and a few more followed

A section of the eastern slopes south west of Longview, Alta., Wednesday, June 16, 2021. A new report finds big differences in how different governments have responded to Canada’s promise to increase the amount of land it protects. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
A for Quebec, F for Alberta: Study rates Canadian governments on conservation

Report by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony in memory of those killed during WWII as he takes part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 22, 2021, marking the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Putin hails WWII heroes, warns of degrading Europe security

Kremlin anxious to see international recognition of wartime sacrifices and its role in defeating Nazis

FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo, mice scurry around stored grain on a farm near Tottenham, Australia. A mouse plague that has ravaged vast swathes of eastern Australia has forced the evacuation of a prison while authorities repair gnawed electrical wiring and clear dead and decaying mice from wall cavities and ceilings, Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin said on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File)
Australian prison to be evacuated after mice move in

Plagues usually happen when rain follows several years of drought

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell looks at his papers as Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, background left, talks to Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides during a European Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting at the European Council building in Luxembourg, Monday, June 21, 2021. EU foreign ministers were set to approve Monday a new set of sanctions against scores of officials in Belarus and prepare a series of measures aimed at the country’s economy. (Johanna Geron/Pool Photo via AP)
EU, US, UK, Canada join forces to slap sanctions on Belarus

Asset freezes and travel bans also imposed

Black Horse Singers performed for students at Ecole la Prairie on Monday. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Students remind Red Deer that every child matters on National Indigenous Day

Heart-shaped messages to decorate trees at Ecole la Prairie through the summer

FILE - Canada’s Cyle Larin (17) scores past Haiti’s Josue Duverger, bottom left, during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Bridgeview, Ill. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Toronto FC’s Zavaleta wastes little time settling in with El Salvador national team

Indiana-born Zavaleta qualifies for El Salvador through his father

Summer McIntosh swims her way to first place in the Women’s 800m Freestyle at the 2020 Olympic Swimming Trials in Toronto, Monday, June 21, 2021. McIntosh, who edged Rio Olympic star Penny Oleksiak in the 200-metre freestyle final a day earlier, picked up where she left off in the women’s 800-metre freestyle. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Summer Time: 14-year-old McIntosh wins again at Olympic swim trials

McIntosh will be one of the youngest athletes in Tokyo

This undated photo provided by Walt Disney World shows Disney characters at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Walt Disney World is planning an 18-month celebration in honor of its 50th anniversary, starting in October 2021. Disney announced Tuesday, June 22 that all four parks at the resort will take part in “The World’s Most Magical Celebration.” (Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World via AP)
Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary party starts Oct. 1

Favorite Disney characters will be part of a collection of special golden sculptures at all four parks

Columnist Treena Mielke
Family: When rain cancels ball game

The wild roses are out, blooming in roadside ditches, their gentle beauty… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson, center, tries to get position for a shot against New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) during the second period in Game 5 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 21, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Stamkos, Vasilevskiy pace Lightning’s 8-0 rout of Islanders

Lightning 8 Islanders 0 (Tampa Bay leads series 3-2) TAMPA, Fla. —… Continue reading

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says he’s ‘convinced’ the city will be able to get rid of the mandatory mask bylaw in July. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
‘Made in Calgary’ approach will keep mask requirements past Alberta’s total reopening

Calgary won’t be following provincial recommendations on the mandatory wearing of masks… Continue reading

Most Read