The shocking discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C., has resurfaced an old dispute about whether a northern Saskatchewan children’s home is a residential school.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson, says that while her band embarks on a search at a residential school site in La Ronge, it’s also time to revisit Timber Bay’s status.
“It’s a really difficult thing to go through, but we have to stand with our students and we have to do what we can,” Cook-Searson said.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops recently announced it discovered the remains of 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Now, Cook-Searson wants a site in downtown La Ronge searched with the same ground-penetrating radar. But Timber Bay presents another challenge.
The LLRIB fought a multi-year battle to have the site recognized as a residential school and secure compensation for former students, who came from her band and across the north, Cook-Searson said.
In 2017, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled that while Timber Bay housed students who attended schools elsewhere, it wasn’t directly government-run and was not eligible for residential school status.
Cook-Searson argues the federal government was responsible for the children in the school, which was founded by the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission and operated from 1952 to 1994.
Cook-Searson said the bands’ legal options are exhausted because the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear their case. She hopes a direct appeal will bring the federal government to the bargaining table.
Discovering new evidence may open new legal paths, said Michael Swinwood, an Elders Without Borders lawyer who represented LLRIB in its case. He said public shaming could also help bring the government to the table without the courts.
“Transferring children from one group to another group is an act of genocide. That’s the residential school program,” he said. “That’s what happened to the survivors of Timber Bay.”
Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte said he also thinks the discovery at Kamloops creates an opening to lobby the federal government.
He noted the debate recalls the memory of Bobby Bird, a 10-year-old boy who fled Timber Bay in the fall of 1969 and disappeared. His whereabouts were unknown until 1999, when a skull found in the 1970s was revealed to be his.
He hopes renewed attention will bring recognition for Timber Bay’s other students, he said.
“If the Supreme Court don’t want to hear about it, then we’re going to do this again.”