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Communities across BC are grieving what was known for decades and recently realized in Kamloops on May 28, 2021. In his grief, Ethan Cairns made the journey to Kamloops to share in the mourning. Here are his photos and some of his reflections:

What compelled you to make the trip to Kamloops?

My family was heading to the mountains prior to the discovery. Once we heard the news, we were able to head to the location. The school was always visible, but we didn’t realize this was an actual residential school. Driving down the road, I could see the orange shirts and crosses, which were super sad. The next day, we pulled over to take the pictures. A man from the community shared his Dad’s story of being forced to go to a residential school and reflected how he has never seen his Dad with this much emotion before. I wondered, “how many other stories are similar to this? It’s only a generation ago that people were still in residential schools.”

What were you feeling as you were shooting these pictures?

We pulled up to the crosses (which can also be seen lined along the road) to stop and see the children’s shirts. I began to realize the tininess of the children. I thought, “this is disgusting and super saddening.” I don’t know how to describe it. If I can experience that level of grief and anger from just seeing the shirts and crosses, I can’t imagine what others are feeling.

Why did you point your camera in this particular direction? Or what drew you to make this specific image?  In this moment, what’s the story you were trying to tell?

I spent a couple of hours photographing. It was my first time covering something like this. It didn’t feel familiar at all. It’s okay to mourn, and we should be mourning. This is death, and this is Canadian, so we should be involved in it. Reconciliation really only works when everyone is involved and settlers learn what Indigenous people went through. Part of this resurfacing shares with us the history of what happened and brings it back to light.

I wanted to capture the kids’ memorials and school (i.e. the school bus, symbolizing the modern school)

The school:

That was the most powerful cross out there. The tininess and size of the dress is impactful.

Ethan Cairns is a first-year photojournalism student and a long-time member of Tenth Church. He hopes to learn from West Coast Indigenous artists by hearing their stories. You can view more of Ethan’s work on his Instagram page.