By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News
(With files from The B.C. Catholic – CCN)
[Saskatoon – May 31, 2021] – The steps of St. Paul Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon were lined with tiny pairs of children’s shoes May 30, placed there by members of the community to commemorate the lives of 215 children whose unmarked graves were recently found on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. that operated from 1890 to 1978.
Cathedral Rector Fr. Stefano Penna welcomed those placing the tribute on the steps, and celebrated the Sunday evening Mass with the doors open, observing four minutes of silence during the penitential rite to pray for the children who died at residential schools. At the start of his homily for Trinity Sunday earlier that day, Bishop Hagemoen called for a minute of silence to pray for the children, their families and communities.
“This silence was to honour others and to honour God on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity,” Hagemoen explained. “While we may not have the words and plan worked out – God shows us through Jesus Christ the way of love, respect, accompaniment, and healing that we must follow.”
Elders and leaders at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Saskatoon – which serves Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and non-Indigenous parishioners, including many residential school survivors and their descendants – gathered for prayer and ceremony May 31 in response to the news of the discovery recently released by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
A prayer event is being planned in the diocese, with details to be announced in the near future.
On May 31, Bishop Mark Hagemoen also released a statement to the diocese about the discovery.
“I join with my brother bishops in B.C. and beyond with expressing on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, my sadness and sympathy to Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation who are mourning the loss of young people upon the discovery of 215 unmarked graves on the site of the former residential school on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation,” Hagemoen said. “I also express sympathy for the many residential school survivors and their families for whom this news is again the occasion for great mourning and grief.”
Hagemoen also expressed his respect for the memorial tribute on the steps of St. Paul Co-Cathedral. “These items will be left in place in the coming days, in solidarity with other memorials and events being held by schools, our provincial and federal governments, and other organizations,” the bishop said.
“May this occasion of mourning and grief also be the occasion for renewed commitment and efforts to build caring relationships between our Indigenous and non-Indigenous brothers and sisters, in a world that continues to grapple with a history that often falls short. The discovered 215 graves is a reminder of this history. Our respectful silence and solidarity together can be a part of the long and careful journey to an unknown and hopeful future,” said Hagemoen.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation May 27 publicly reported the findings of ground-penetrating radar that confirmed the “unthinkable loss” of the undocumented bodies of more than 200 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We had a knowing in our community,” Chief Rosanne Casimir said of the discovery, adding that some of the children were as young as three years old. “We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was opened in 1890 and run by Catholics and the Canadian federal government. It was the largest in the Indian Affairs residential school system, with enrolment reaching a high of 500 students in the early 1950s.
The school was one of five residential schools run by Catholic religious orders in the historical geographic boundaries of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. In 1945, with the establishment of the present-day Diocese of Kamloops, the school fell under the boundaries of the new diocese.
The school eventually ceased running classes and in 1969 the federal government took over administration. At the time it was being used as a residential building for students at day schools. It was closed in 1978.
“I am filled with deep sadness at the troubling news about the 215 children found buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. “The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring light to every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church. The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”
Bishop Joseph Nguyen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloops (formed in 1945 as a suffrage of the Archdiocese of Vancouver) said: “I humbly join so many who are heartbroken and horrified” by the news of the discovery.
“On behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloops, I express my deepest sympathy to Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and to all who are mourning this tragedy and an unspeakable loss. No words of sorrow could adequately describe this horrific discovery,” Nguyen said, offering his prayers on behalf of the diocese for the First Nations community.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) released a statement May 31 about the discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops. “As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side-by-side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future,” wrote CCCB President Bishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg.
In the diocese of Saskatoon, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools held special prayers, and joined other groups in lowering flags to half-mast. St. Thomas More College President Carl Still released a statement May 31, expressing sorrow, pain and commitment to “the work of transforming Canadian society.”
“The discovery of these 215 children sparks a range of emotions,” said Still. “Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reminds us that ‘while it is not new to find graves at former residential schools in Canada, it’s always crushing to have that chapter’s wounds exposed.’ These crushing moments might tempt us to look away. However, to live in solidarity and to walk authentically along the path of reconciliation requires the courage to face the truth of our collective histories. We send out our compassion along with our prayers for all those who are suffering right now.”
In the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation statement about the discovery, Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir said: “We are thankful for the Pathway to Healing grant we received to undertake this important work. Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond.”
The First Nation said next steps include working with a coroner, reaching out to communities whose children may have attended the school, protecting the locations of the remains, and seeking records of the deaths.
The tragedy of missing children, unmarked graves, and residential school cemeteries was documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013. Its final report, Honouring the Truth, included several Calls to action, including the updating of records on the deaths of Indigenous children, completion of a national student death register, and creation of an online registry of residential school cemeteries with maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.
The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified. (Source: www.trc.ca/events-and-projects/missing-children-project.html)