In response to Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s announcement that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, School District 73 is preparing to support its staff, students and counsellors while taking the lead from Tk’emlúps on how best to do so.
On Monday night (May 31), the district began its board meeting with a presentation that included singing and drumming by elder and knowledge keeper Ivy Chelsea, who connected with the board virtually from the former residential school site.
In front of the monument dedicated to residential school survivors, which is surrounded by flowers and cards left by visitors, Chelsea told a crowd gathered around the monument that she was there because of the strength of her ancestors.
"I'm here because of their strength. You're here because of your family's strength," she told the crowd and school board.
School trustee Diane Jules told the board it has been a hard weekend for the Tk'emlúps community.
"I know that the survivors, my mother being one of them, were really shook up. Because, as Ivy said, it validates all the stories we knew about, that we've been talking about, that nobody would hear, nobody would listen," she said.
Jules joined the board in 2018 as its first Indigenous trustee.
Upon hearing the news last week, the school district immediately went to work contacting parents, staff and students. Over the weekend, staff began meeting with the Ministry of Education's newly formed resource team, which has offered its assistance in dealing with the impact of the news both in Kamloops and across the rest of the province.
Mike Bowden, district principal for Aboriginal education, said the impact of the event will be far-reaching.
"It's not just this district that is going to be dealing with this, it will be all districts," he said.
Bowden said information is going out to support teachers, especially those who might be anxious about doing the right thing. He also said SD73 has already done a lot of work with regard to topics of residential schools reconciliation through its work with Orange Shirt Day in September.
"We've had a lot of conversations around being trauma-sensitive in classrooms," he said, noting the topic will be a triggering one to many members of the community.
Bowden said a district group, Indigenous Family Voices for Education, is also involved. The Indigenous parent group has been mobilized to help support students and families.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released a series of reports in 2015 detailing what it found in seeking the truths about what happened in Canada's residential schools, which were created by the federal government and run by various religious organizations, including the Catholic, United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches.
Bowden said while reconciliation is a new topic to most, it's not new to Aboriginal communities.
"However, what is new is the level of engagement in wanting to walk alongside them in healing," he told the board. "It's not just an education for students and families, but it's going to be an education for staff, too. Not just learning about what happened, or re-learning, but learning how to process that and communicate it to students.”
Among the district's immediate plans are to fly its flags at half-mast and asking schools to plan an Orange Shirt Day or other activity that engages students. On Monday, many staff and students wore orange on their own initiative, following social media calls to do so. The SD73 board was also seen in orange on Monday evening.