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

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens after accident at Taylor River Flats

Multi-vehicle crash had closed highway to west coast

Grade 12 graduates Jada Touchie, Timothy Masso and Brendan Brown are all smiles after receiving their Goodies for the Grads gift packs thanks to a small neighbourhood grant from the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet Secondary School grads set to parade through town

Family and friends can cheer on the Class of 2021 this Saturday, June 19 at 4:30 p.m.

From left, Ahousaht First Nation Hereditary Chief Richard George presents a $10,000 cheque to Tofino Hatchery manager Doug Palfrey alongside Tyler Huebner of TCH Contracting The funds will go towards rebuilding Cypre river Chinook. (Carallyn Bowes photo)
Tofino Hatchery receives $10K donation

Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society tackling massive drop in Chinook salmon stocks

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

This rendering shows the potential layout for a 40-unit staff housing cooperative being proposed by the Pac Rim Home Development Cooperative in Ucluelet. (Image from www.prhdc.ca)
Pac Rim Cooperative pitches staff housing project in Ucluelet

“We’re looking at it as if it’s like a resort for employees”

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

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 vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum speaks at a press conference in August 2019 about provincial government approval of the city’s change to a municipal force, joined by councillors (from left) Mandeep Nagra, Allison Patton and Doug Elford. Members of the National Police Federation claim there is still no transition plan in place although Surrey RCMP’s contract with the city is due to end March 31.(File photo)
Elections BC approves petition application for referendum on Surrey policing transition

Application was filed under Recall and Initiative Act by the widow of a Surrey murder victim

There were 255 babies born in Victoria in May 2021. (Black Press Media file photo)
Pandemic baby boom makes for a busier Vancouver Island Father’s Day

Victoria’s 255 babies born in May up almost 10 per cent over last year

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver lawyer, has been suspended from practice for two months after admitting that his firm mismanaged $44,353.19 in client trust funds. (Acumen Law)
High-profile B.C. lawyer suspended over $44K in mismanaged client trust funds

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko admits he failed to supervise his staff and find or report the shortages

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

Athena and Venus, ready to ride. (Zoe Ducklow - Sooke News Mirror)
Goggling double-dog motorcycle sidecar brings smiles to B.C. commuters

Athena and Venus are all teeth and smiles from their Harley-Davidson sidecar

Kimberly Bussiere and other laid-off employees of Casino Nanaimo have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
B.C. casino workers laid off during pandemic launch class-action lawsuit

Notice of civil claim filed in Supreme Court of B.C. in Nanaimo against Great Canadian Gaming

Most Read