“Many of our children have died,” remembers Evelyn Camille, forcibly interned in the 1940s at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of 215 children were found.
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To try to heal these still painful wounds, this 82-year-old “elder” helped create a school that highlights the culture and language of her community, which these boarding schools specifically wanted to deny.
Evelyn Camille is a member of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc, an indigenous community in western Canada. Born in 1939, she was separated from her family and then interned at Kamloops Indian Residential School, far from her community.
“I have been here for 10 years,” she tells AFP, pointing to the red brick facade bathed in orange light at night, come like other residents to honor the missing children.
“They came to get us from our reserves and brought us here in big cattle trucks,” she recalls, before confessing, her throat tight, that she doesn’t like to talk about life in the country. boarding school because she suffered “physical, mental and spiritual” abuse.
“Many children tried to run away from here. Many never made it home, ”she explains, a shadow passing over her face. “So many of these deaths were never taken into account.”
A week earlier, the head of her community had announced the discovery, using ground penetrating radar, of the remains of 215 children near the boarding school.
Since then, Evelyn Camille regularly comes to sit with her family to meditate, discuss and console themselves in front of the memorial set up opposite the old boarding school.
“This discovery sheds light on the way we were treated. Many of our children are dead, ”breathes Evelyn, on the verge of tears. Her community had long suspected that the remains of missing students were near the boarding school.
This confirmation reopened wounds that had never been closed and generated a shockwave in Canada, reviving discussions around the often taboo subject of these Indian residential schools.
“There is never really mourning. The pain is too deep in our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies, the pain is too deep. Every little thing will reopen those wounds, but we’re learning to get used to it. ”
Serving up to 500 students, Kamloops Residential School was the largest in Canada, welcoming children from the many Indigenous peoples living in the region.
Created in 1890 and managed by the Catholic Church and then by the federal government, it closed in 1978. Other residential schools, about 140 in total, lasted until the end of the 20th century.
It is estimated that 150,000 children have been interned by the church and the Canadian government. By isolating them from their culture, these establishments aimed to “civilize” the natives by instilling European values in them through strict religious education and arduous manual labor.
Many suffered physical and sexual abuse there, and thousands of them died or disappeared, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released in 2015.
Malnourished, poorly heated, poorly cared for: Indigenous children often died of illnesses, including tuberculosis, or while trying to escape from residential schools, but records are mostly incomplete or missing.
Following her traumatic experience, Evelyn Camille helped build the nearby Sk’elep school, in order to continue, despite everything, the traditions of her people, while rebuilding herself.
“I helped to build this school because I said to myself: ‘This must never happen again, to any of our children. We must build our own school where the children will know their culture, their language and their traditions”, ” tells this mother of three daughters, who mainly teaches children aged 5 to 6 there.
“I hope I will work on it for a long time to come,” she exclaims, a broad smile lighting up her face.
After the boarding school closed, she helped children placed in foster care because their parents, desperate to see them interned, had sunk into alcohol.
The wind rises on the makeshift memorial in front of the boarding school, which grows day by day with the offerings brought by people sometimes from far away. Toys and small shoes rub shoulders with flowers and messages of support left throughout the day to the sound of traditional songs and drums.
After consoling members of her community gathered in front of the memorial, Evelyn closes her eyes and sings a song meant to accompany the spirits of the children finally found after being buried for decades.
“These children have wandered here for too long. Now they can finally go home. ”