The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at the site of a former residential school for indigenous children, a discovery Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as heartbreaking on May 28.
The children were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia that closed in 1978, according to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, which said the remains were found with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify,” Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said in a statement. “At this time, we have more questions than answers.”
The B.C. Coroners Service has been notified and more work will be carried out on the site.
“We are early in the process of gathering information and will continue to work collaboratively with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and others as this sensitive work progresses,” B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe told CBC.
The school operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility’s operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1914 and 1963.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said he is “horrified and heartbroken” to learn of the discovery of the burial site.
Horgan says the discovery is a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” and highlights the violence and consequences of the residential school system.
The head of the First Nations Health Authority says it will be providing mental health and trauma support to community members as the search continues.
B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth made a brief statement on May 28 about the discovery at the former residential school at a news conference on a separate announcement.
“I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc people who are dealing with the continuing tragedy and impact of the residential school system and the dark chapter that is in their nation’s history and our nation’s history and our thoughts are with them today.”
Reuters and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.