The Kamloops Indian Residential School was part of the Canadian residential school system, established as part of the government policy of forced assimilation that resulted in the oppression of generations of Indigenous children.
It was one of more than 130 such schools that operated in Canada between 1874 and 1996.
Located on the traditional territory of the Secwépemc people, hundreds of Secwépemc and other First Nations children attended the Kamloops school. Students were sent there from as far away as Penticton, Hope, Mount Currie, Lillooet and even outside the province.
Enrolment peaked in the early 1950s at 500.
Children were forcibly removed from their homes once attendance became mandatory by law in the 1920s, with their parents under threat of prison if they refused. Students lived at the school from September to June, alienated from their family except for Christmas and Easter visits.
The children were not allowed to speak their native language nor practise their own spirituality. Many children ran away and some disappeared and died.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School originated as the Kamloops Industrial School, a training facility to acculturate native children built in 1890. The government hired Michel Hagan to be the first principal and he reportedly did a good job.
Sister Superior Mary Joachim of St. Ann’s took charge of the girls. However, as a layman, Hagan got embroiled in controversy with the Catholic Church and resigned in 1892. The government turned the operation over to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1893.
When then-Governor General John Hamilton-Gordon visited in 1894, there were 50 students. However, as the number of students increased, conditions deteriorated and abuse occurred. In 1910, the principal said the government did not provide enough funding to properly feed the students.
The dilapidated wood-frame school was partly destroyed by fire in 1924 while a new main building was under construction, the structure that still stands today. Additions were made over the years. The exterior walls are made of local red brick with granite chimney caps, coping stones and detailing. Large timber trusses support the shingled roof, while a galvanized iron bell tower dominates the symmetrical design.
In 1969, the federal government took over administration of the school from the church, which no longer provided any classes, and operated it as a residence for students attending local day schools, until it was closed in 1977.
The impacts of the residential school include family dysfunction, personal and social problems, loss of culture and near-extinction of language. Inter-generational trauma is ongoing.
Should the building as a site of assimilation be preserved? Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, believes that these Indian Residential School sites “are places that must be marked and acknowledged, even if they represent a dark and difficult chapter in our country’s history.”
Since the closure of the Kamloops school, the main school structure has been adapted over the years for various uses, including as Tk’emlups te Secwépemc administration offices, community space and a day care.
A later addition to the school, constructed in the 1950s, has been converted into the Secwépemc Museum. The museum interprets Secwépemc culture, as well as the history of the school.
A commemorative monument has been erected directly in front of the main building. The inscription reads: “This monument is dedicated to honor all survivors from the Secwépemc bands who attended the Kamloops Residential School; who all suffered the genocide period in the history of the Kamloops Indian Residential School; and to honor all survivors who are not with us today, but are with us in spirit.”
A provincial Stop-of-Interest sign has also been placed in front of the school.
Recently, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, Jonathan Wilkinson, recognized the national historic significance of the residential school system as a tragic and defining event in Canadian history.
He also announced the designation of two former residential school sites as national historic sites: the former Portage La Prairie Indian Residential School in Manitoba and the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia.
The Kamloops Residential School is a reminder of a colonial past that still reverberates today locally and across the country. How the painful story of this institution should be told is controversial.
Can the physical building play a part in reconciliation and help to heal the wounds of the past? The fate of the former school is ultimately the decision of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.
Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and former curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum and Archives.