Manitobans honour and mourn 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Manitobans gripped with grief are finding ways to honour the 215 children found buried on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Residential school survivors tied hundreds of orange ribbons outside a downtown Winnipeg Catholic church on Saturday.

Vivian Ketchum of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation in Kenora, Ont., said she woke up and saw the news about the horrifying discovery and instantly thought of her mother and relatives who attended residential schools.

“We’re all residential school survivors. We were all children. We all went under similar experiences, whether it be in B.C., Thunder Bay, Kenora, all the stories are the same. All the tears are the same,” Ketchum said.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation hired a specialist in ground-penetrating radar to carry out the work and believes the deaths of the children are undocumented. 

Gerry Shingoose drummed and sang for the 215 children whose deaths were undocumented in Kamloops, B.C. (Viv Ketchum/Facebook)

Some of the children were as young as three years old when they died, the First Nation said.

Attempts are underway to identify and return home the children’s remains.

Ketchum says the death reopens old wounds that never fully healed. A survivor herself, Ketchum felt that some action needed to be taken to honour the lives of the children in Kamloops.

She hung an orange t-shirt, a symbol meant to raise awareness of the lasting impact of residential schools on Indigenous children, outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral, a Catholic church, but felt like more needed to be done.

Ketchum enlisted the help of her friend Gerry Shingoose and the two of them lovingly tied ribbons in the area to help provide a visual reminder of the children whose lives were stolen.

“I was thinking, ‘How many of those stories like mine?’ They were not heard. That’s 215 stories that were not heard. So that got to me,” Ketchum said. 

Shingoose said the “heartbreaking” discovery in Kamloops brought back memories for her as a survivor, too. That’s part of why she wanted to show support for the families affected by the news.

“Their experience is our experience,” she said. “We survived what happened to us and we’re still here.”

Shingoose went to the Muscowequan Residential School from 1962 to 1971. In 2019, anthropologists there uncovered as many as 15 unmarked graves of children who attended the school.

Human remains had also been discovered there in the early 1990s, when the school was still open.

Shingoose said as far as she’s aware, the remains of 64 children have so far been discovered outside the residential school she once attended.

“My reality is my playground was a cemetery as a child,” she said. “When I was in school I’d look up on the hill — and that’s where the graveyard was, and that’s where they found those children.”

Both Shingoose and Ketchum said it was difficult to go through such a heart-wrenching experience with COVID-19 precautions in mind.

“We had to maintain distances, we couldn’t come support each other, like hug each other — even that, we couldn’t do that. That was a double whammy right there,” Ketchum said.

“I wish we could be gathered and have ceremonies like sacred fires…. We can’t do that because of COVID, and that’s what really hurts.”

Lines of shoes at Oodena Circle, Selkirk

Bear Clan Patrol laid out shoes in the Oodena Circle at The Forks in memory of the 215 children whose bodies were found in Kamloops. (Travis Golby/CBC)

On Sunday, Bear Clan Patrol lined up shoes in the Oodena Circle at The Forks, but not just for the 215 bodies found, the Indigenous-led group wrote on social media.

“The fear is that is one of many such places,” the post said.

“The work of our members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, is to walk side by side in the journey of healing and reconciliation among the community members we serve who are in need today because of the pain and trauma that is the legacy of the residential school and the effects of the colonial system here in Canada.”

Residents of Selkirk set up shoes outside of 222 Manitoba Ave., where the Selkirk Friendship Centre operates. (Janice Grant/CBC)

A group in Selkirk, Man., also set up a line of shoes outside of the Selkirk Friendship Centre on Manitoba Avenue.

‘The world’s watching’

The City of Winnipeg and Premier Brian Pallister also showed respect for the children who died.

“Out of respect to all those affected by this horrific news the Winnipeg sign has been dimmed. The flags at City Hall will also be half mast from sunrise to sunset for four days beginning Sunday,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman posted on social media.

Pallister wrote in a news release on Sunday that he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

The flags at the Legislature and Memorial Park have been lowered, and the Legislative building will be lit orange to honour “the 215 children whose lives were lost, and all survivors, their families and all those who never made it home,” the news release said.

Shingoose said it’s brought her comfort to see the outpouring of support across the country for the families affected by the discovery in Kamloops.

“They’ve unified us from nation to nation,” she said. “I know the world’s watching right now.”

But she also said calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — which included a call for strategies to identify and document residential school burial sites — haven’t been taken seriously.

She said all Canada’s former residential schools need to be examined for graves that haven’t yet been uncovered.

“[It’s] a national tragedy. As survivors it’s always been a tragedy for us…. They could have had families. Their grandchildren could have been in university,” she said.

Shingoose said survivors like her have already shared their stories, time and time again — including with the federal government and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Now, it’s Canada’s turn to listen,” she said.

Support available

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.