As the midday sun beat down on the wide-open field in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Stephanie Gutierrez looked out at the row of 215 solar lights stretched out before her.
Beside each light, Gutierrez wanted to place a small pair of shoes.
“These children were here,” she said as she rubbed the top of a pair of gold, glittering shoes that were donated to this memorial by someone touched by the news.
“It hurts. It hurts so much.”
Gutierrez was one of many people from nearby First Nations and the city of Kamloops drawn to this site since the news broke a few days ago.
A mound of stuffed animals, flowers and notes encircles a monument that was previously erected to honour those from the 17 Secwépemc nations who attended the residential school, which closed in 1978.
On the sides of the concrete base are dozens of names of children who were known to have died.
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission previously recorded and published the names of more than 60 children who died at Kamloops Indian Residential School. For decades, however, members of local Indigenous communities have been saying many more children were missing and presumed dead.
A sacred fire was lit on Friday and burned until Monday night, while over the weekend drumming ceremonies and prayers were held to honour the children who died at residential school.
Gutierrez’s grandmother attended the residential school, but Gutierrez said that she didn’t hear much of her experience because they didn’t have a good relationship for many years.
Gutierrez said when she was younger, she didn’t realize why her grandmother couldn’t “show” her love. She grew to understand, however, as she learned about the trauma endured by the more than 150,000 Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools across Canada.
“My grandma survived, and I’m here because of her,” she said.
Gutierriez said contributing to the memorial is helping her work through her grief. As she tied shoes together with orange ribbons, Viviane Sandy sang and drummed a few metres away.
The 71-year-old drove up to Kamloops from Vancouver on the weekend. She didn’t know how else to deal with the rage and devastation she felt after hearing about the what was detected at the site.
Sandy, who is from Williams Lake First Nation, was forced to attend residential school in there. Her siblings, however, were taken to the institution in Kamloops about 300 kilometres south.
She said her youngest brother suffered years of physical and sexual abuse, which she only learned about decades later.
“It wasn’t until way after he was an adult,” she said. “He couldn’t handle things anymore. Then he came and started talking about what happened here.”
Sandy said her brother died by suicide when he was in his 30s.
“It was … torture what he went through,” she said.
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Calls to action
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 4,100 children who died while at residential schools altogether but acknowledged that the exact death toll may never be known.
The TRC concluded that the bodies of the majority of students who died at the schools were not returned to their home communities.
In its final report, the commissioners issued 94 “calls to action,” including calling on the federal government to fund the creation of a national student death registry and a push for the government and churches that ran the schools to identify burial sites.
Sandy says that the recent work of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in Kamloops is just the start of a search that needs to happen at the sites of all former residential schools.
“They are going to dig up all the rest of them across Canada and Yukon,” she said.
“Free all of these children.”
Officials with the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc said they are waiting for a final report detailing the findings of the ground surveying; they don’t expect an update to be issued for a few weeks.
On Monday night, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir met virtually with band members to brief them on what officials know so far and seek input on how to honour the children. Conversations have already started about how to handle the remains.
It’s a difficult discussion, but Mike Bowden, district principal for Aboriginal education with the Kamloops-Thompson school district, is hopeful that something good can come out of all of this.
On Monday, he spoke to CBC News outside of an elementary school where a Canadian flag was flying at half-mast.
“This is really the start of another stage of healing,” he said.
“We’re a bit at ground zero with that.”
Bowden is with the Whispering Pines/Clinton Indian Band, 40 kilometres north of Kamloops.
He said he recently was on a call with other First Nation communities, and a knowledge keeper remarked how gratifying it was that technology appears to have confirmed what so many from the Indigenous community have known for years.
Given that, Bowden expected that he would have been better prepared for news about the Kamloops site. But he still wasn’t.
He said he felt traumatized after first hearing the news.
After meeting with administrators and educators, he said a note was sent home to parents on Friday. Staff are trying to figure out how best to support students now and going forward if any excavation is done.
“[The children] have been missing for years, and now it is time for them to be received back into communities,” he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.