At least 36 children are known to have died over the years while attending Kamloops Indian Residential School, but the Tk'emlups band believes the actual figure could be three to four times greater.
The estimate comes from the Missing Children Working Group. As part of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the group has been researching the fate of residential school students who never returned to their families.
Project researchers reported this week that initial findings indicate 3,000 students died across Canada during the century that the residential schools operated.
The fatalities in Kamloops took place between 1914 and 1963, and reflect a period when a new form of record-keeping was adopted.
"I've been to the Kamloops school, so I have a sense of what it looked like, and I talked to survivors there," research manager Alex Maass said from Vancouver.
Researchers aren't surprised by the number of fatalities - aboriginal communities have talked about student deaths for years - but they have been surprised by the public response to their early findings, she said.
"What's different, I think, about this is that numbers have been in the press for many years but they haven't been based on any factual evidence," Maass said.
"That combination of survivor statements and documents to date, and some on-the-ground research, has given us this number. It's by no means the final number. It's a low number, but that doesn't make it any less important. These people's families have been looking for information for years about what happened."
The Kamloops school operated from 1893 to 1977 and received students from all over the province.
Tk'emlups First Nation has maintained the second school building, built in 1924, partly as a reminder of a system that shattered families, ruptured indigenous culture and created an enduring and painful legacy. There are mixed feelings about letting that reminder stand.
"Lots of ghosts, lots of bad memories and trigger points for a lot of people," said Chief Shane Gottfriedson as he reflected on a memorial installed last year in front of the school.
"When you look at all the disturbing information coming out, it's something that's probably long overdue in my opinion," he said.
The monument bears the names of the 13 Tk'emlups families as well as those of students and the years they attended the school. It reads in part: "In honour of all survivors who are not with us today but are with us in spirit."
Former students - who've come to be known as survivors - have recounted stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They've also talked about deplorable conditions, which may partly explain why so many children succumbed to disease.
"By and large, disease was certainly the primary cause of death," Maass said, citing tuberculosis and meningitis as two leading causes. "The conditions in the schools were such that kids would sometimes come in sick and if they were healthy, it wasn't too long before they were exposed to other kids."
She said were rumours of unmarked graves in front of the school that have never been located, but Chief Shane Gottfriedson doesn't believe there is basis to believe that since the area in front of the school was used for recreation.
Maass said she suspects the death count will rise as new evidence comes to light. To date, they've recorded 500 deaths in 18 B.C. schools. An Ontario court recently ordered the federal government to hand over millions of archived documents to the commission.
"I would just say, 3,000 (nationally) is a low death figure," Gottfriedson said. "You could probably multiply that by four in my personal opinion."
The numbers alone raise more questions than they answer at this point.
"If there was that much sickness, you'd think the government would do an investigation or an audit," Gottfriedson said. "Was it due to malnutrition and unhealthy living conditions? You'd think some sort of alarm bells were going off with government, but maybe aboriginal people didn't matter."
The band is still pursuing compensation for its own day scholars, students who attended but did not reside at the school. It would also like to see a healing fund and compensation for descendants of survivors.
"It's an ongoing battle and if anything comes out of the investigation, hopefully Canada will do the right thing by First Nations."
Once redress has been achieved, the band may reconsider whether it wants to keep the old school, he said.
© Kamloops Daily News