POLIS Project Statement regarding the mass burial site discovery at the Kamloops Residential School

Published On: June 3rd, 2021

We write this message to share with our cherished colleagues and friends as an expression of our deep sadness and sincere condolences to families and communities of the 215 children found in an unmarked mass burial site at the former Kamloops Residential School, on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops. We lift up the memories of these innocent children and offer respect to honour their lives, and also the lives and resilience of those who survived horrific and unconscionable residential school experiences. We are humbled by the stories that have been shared by residential school survivors and the wisdom and advice being gifted by Indigenous speakers and leaders at this painful time.

We extend our heartfelt condolences to all those mourning, especially the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc people and our Indigenous colleagues and friends who are experiencing pain and grief, new and old, at learning this news. We also extend gratitude to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc people for their strength and courage to use new technology to reveal this truth to the world.

Within our water and biocultural diversity work at POLIS, we are dedicated to understanding what reconciliation means and what changes reconciliation requires of us. With the current news from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, we have re-committed to learning more and examining our own practices to identify what needs to change and how.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc discovery is deeply disturbing, but should not be surprising to any of us. Residential school survivors have been telling the stories of their missing and murdered family members and friends for generations, and many courageously gave formal testimony as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We call on ourselves and invite all people in our networks, especially those who identify as non-Indigenous, to join us in the difficult learning about this shameful history of our country. We know there will be many more unmarked graves found across our province and country in the coming months and years. We also know if we want to be part of healing and catalyzing real change, we must commit to remembering these painful stories every day, not just on days when tragedies like this dominate news headlines.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has 94 calls to action, only a handful of which have been implemented since they were brought forward in 2015. Many of us have read the TRC calls and made some changes, but clearly that is not sufficient. Taking to heart the advice of Indigenous leaders speaking out at this time, our team at POLIS is undertaking a review of the TRC Calls to Action in detail and in light of our work. We are asking ourselves, individually and collectively: What more do I/we need to learn? What can I/we start doing? What can I/we continue doing? What can I/we stop doing?

As we explore our answers and actions in the coming weeks and months, one thing we know is that good minds and good hearts coming together are needed to make change. Some ideas inspired by our Indigenous colleagues are shared below. Please join us as we continue to learn how to be part of the healing, reparation, restoration, and justice that underlie any hope of reconciliation in Canada:

  1. Listen. Listen. Listen. Then when you are finishing listening, listen again.” These timeless words of wisdom have been shared many times by Nlakapamux member Verna (Pepeyla) Miller, former director of Tmixw Research (an Indigenous research group), former Project Facilitator for the Nlakapamux Health and Healing Society, and former president of the International Society of Ethnobiology. As a first step, actively listen to the many Indigenous leaders and speakers who are sharing their perspectives, advice, and wisdom, and encourage others to do so as well.
  2. Consider speaking up. Silence can be interpreted in many ways. Consider if/what you can contribute to the public conversation, whether that is speaking your own words or amplifying the words of Indigenous colleagues and leaders. Be sure to get informed before making a public statement from your organization or using your personal voice through social media to support Indigenous peoples. Making space is better than taking up space.
  3. Support counselling, ceremonies, and other healing efforts for Indigenous peoples, whether financially or by being understanding and making space for Indigenous colleagues to tend to their families and communities at times of loss and crisis.
  4. Call for action from Crown governments. We must hold our provincial and federal governments to account. Contact your elected leaders. Tell them to make it a priority to implement all 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tell them to require the release all of documents and records related to residential schools in Canada including the names of missing children. Tell our governments to make available the funds and political will to enable similar community-led assessments in locations of other residential schools and suspected unmarked gravesites across Canada, as well as to support Indigenous communities in their healing ceremonies and other needs to reconcile the findings. Tell our governments the financial and political support are obligations of Canada to Indigenous peoples, whatever the cost may be.
  5. Support your Indigenous colleagues. Don’t expect Indigenous colleagues to undertake business as usual. Respect that family and community responsibilities may need to come first. Be open to learn what is shared but do not expect Indigenous colleagues and friends to educate you. We need to do our homework and seek to learn from reliable sources, before asking others to educate us.

Here is a list of resources.

We thank you for being part of our POLIS community as we continue to seek a path forward based in relationship, respect, and understanding.

Oliver M. Brandes (Co-Director), Kelly Bannister (Co-Director), Laura Brandes (Communications Director) & Rosie Simms (Project Manager) on behalf of the entire POLIS Project team


The featured feather design was created by Carey Newman Hayalthkin’geme (Kwakwaka’wakw/Coast Salish) for Orange Shirt Day in 2017. The design—a grouping of smaller feathers to create a larger one—is meant to represent that children come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all important. In 2019, Newman incorporated the rainbow colours as a way for the design to be more inclusive of LGBTQ2S+ peoples. Newman is also the creator of the Witness Blanket, a 12-metre-long sculpture comprised of 600 objects and artifacts he collected from Indian residential schools across Canada.