Flags across Canada are being flown at half-mast after 215 bodies of Indigenous children were discovered last month buried near a former British Columbia residential school, a church-run education system in operation for more than 100 years that forced kids as young as 3 years old from their families and communities for the purpose of assimilation.
Since the discovery, prayer vigils and memorials led by Indigenous leaders from different bands have sprung up both locally and across the country. Mi’kmaw jingle dancers performed Monday morning across the country in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and hundreds of children’s shoes, moccasins and stuffed animals were left on the steps of the legislature building in nearby Saskatchewan.
“It’s not about what happened at the school, what led to their untimely death. It’s to honor them, to honor the life that they could have had, the life that they were denied,” an organizer of the Charlottetown event Lynn Bradley told the CBC. Bradley hails from the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.
The Kamloops Indian Board, or Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, is leading the investigation.
“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” the board’s elected Chief or Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir said in a statement. “Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
The statement continued on to say the board will be in charge of working with the coroner, seeking out the families and communities of those identified and protecting the burial sites.
The Government of Canada estimates that more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families in this period.
While touted at the time as an education program, many now call the residential school system a state- and church-sponsored attempt at the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and blame the abuses suffered at the schools for lasting generational trauma among Indigenous communities today.
The recent news “is once again a reminder of the harms families and Survivors have suffered and continue to suffer,” Canada’s minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and the Minister of Indigenous Services said in a joint statement. “We are profoundly saddened by this discovery and our thoughts are with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, as well as with all Indigenous communities across Canada.”
“As a dad, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have my kids taken away from me, and as prime minister, I am appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday, according to CTV News.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded a six-year report on residential schools in 2015. They estimated that more than 4,100 students died in these schools of disease, but the organization says the actual toll could be 6,000 or higher.
“The exact number of children who died at school may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high,” according to the TRC’s Missing Children Project.
What Were Residential Schools?
In the early days of Canada’s establishment as a country, the federal government established the Indian reservation school system between 1870s and 1990s in order to force indigenous populations to assimilate to Canadian culture and convert to Catholicism and leave behind their own heritage and spiritual beliefs.
The schools, which operated for more than 100 years, were introduced as boarding schools run by the various churches for Indigenous people to send their students to for a standardized education.
It became mandatory in 1920 for every Indigenous child to be sent to residential school, and in 1933, official guardianship of the kids attending residential schools was transferred to the principal of the schools, legally forcing parents to surrender custody of their kids, according to the report by the Union of Ontario Indians.
The last residential school located in Saskatchewan was officially shut down just 25 years ago, in 1996.
What’s the Problem?
In reality, these schools ended up tearing young children far away from their families for long periods of time with the objective of erasing Indigenous heritage over time.
Indigenous children were forced to cut their hair short and wear uniforms, and they were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing their culture, according to a report by the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Foundations.
Boys and girls were often separated, meaning siblings that attended the same residential school likely never saw one another.
These rules were enforced by nude beatings, scaldings, starvation and various forms of sexual abuse, according to a report by the Union of Ontario Indians.
Additionally, some of those caught speaking a language other than the official languages, English or French, were punished with needles in their tongues.
Many of the schools were so poorly funded that instead of receiving a typical education, many were only taught trade skills like laundry, cooking, cleaning, farming and carpentry, with the intention they would do the labor after class hours in order keep the schools running.
Many students received so few hours of education that by the time they were forced to leave at 18 years old, they had the equivalent education of a fifth grader.
According to the TRC’s final report on residential schools, “the schools were sites of hunger, overwork, danger and disease, limited education, and, in tens of thousands of cases, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and neglect.”
“We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled,” former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in the 2008 national apology.
What Happened at the Kamloops Residential School?
The Kamloops Residential School, originally named the Kamloops Industrial School, opened in 1890 under Roman Catholic Church administration outside of Kamloops, a city in interior B.C. about a 4-hour drive from Vancouver. It eventually became the largest in the residential school system, according to the TRC.
Most children that would have attended the school were Secwépemc, but there would have been kids from bands all over British Columbia in attendance as well.
The school reported having not enough money to feed all the students in 1910, and by the 1950s, enrollment peaked at 500 students.
The school was also rife with disease, and in 1957, an outbreak of influenza in the province led to half the students becoming ill.
The federal government eventually took over the school in 1969 and halted all classes, staying open only to house students attending day schools elsewhere.
The Kamloops Residential School closed for good in the summer of 1978.
How Did Experts Find the Mass Grave Near the Kamloops Residential School?
An anthropology team from the University of Alberta was able to use remote sensing techniques like ground-penetrating radar equipment and drones to survey the unmarked burial grounds.
Kisha Supernant, who is Métis and part of the team behind the excavation, explained it was important to use equipment that did not disturb the burial sites.
“It’s a process of engaging with the community, with being attentive to the sensitivity of what we’re doing and the potential impacts it can have,” she told the CBC. “This is part of reconciliation.”
Where Are the Survivors Today?
Since the discovery was announced last month, a national crisis line dedicated to residential school survivors reported an inundation of calls.
Bruce Allan of the Stellat’en First Nation, who works at the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society’s (IRSSS) crisis line said while many survivors refuse to discuss the atrocities they had underwent, “the more people share, the more healing happens,” he told the Toronto Star.
Allan says his own father was a survivor of residential school, but he “never talked about it, he never shared anything about it. He took it to the grave with him.”
IRSSS officials are offering resources to survivors on site at the Kamloops mass grave, where a Sacred Fire was lit on Monday and is expected to continue for at least another 24 hours, Daybreak Kamloops reported.
As of 2008, there were approximately 80,000 living former residential school students, the Government of Canada said in its national apology.
That number does not account for the “large numbers of the Aboriginal children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities,” according to the TRC Missing Children Project. They claim while some died, many ran away.
What Has the Canadian Government Done About It Since?
The abuses of the residential school system has been acknowledged by the federal government.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology in the House of Commons to all survivors, admitting that the policy of residential schools was “to kill the Indian in the child,” based on the idea that “Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.”
Ahead of the national apology, the Government of Canada established a $1.9 billion compensation package to survivors, who were on average delivered a lump-sum payment of $28,000 each called the Common Experience Payment (CEP). Those who suffered “serious physical and/or sexual abuse” were offered a maximum payment of $275,000.
This marks the largest class action settlement in Canadian history.
However, there were day schools at which Indigenous children were not required to stay overnight. While day scholars were subject to similar abusive practices, survivors were exempt from the 2008 federal apology and compensation packages, according to Justice for Day Scholars.
The nonprofit advocacy group is currently in litigation against the Government of Canada for justice.
The Government of Canada said in a statement, “Canada is participating in judicial dispute resolution with the plaintiffs. We continue to work to resolve this class action.”
The U.S., which was also home to its own set of residential schools with similar abuses, has issued an apology to its residential school survivors in 2019 under former President Barack Obama, but the apology has not impacted legislation nor has any concrete action like compensation packages been rewarded to its survivors.
In the wake of the discovery and the country’s collective guilt, the call for accountability continues.
The University of British Columbia is now reviewing an honorary degree given to the former principal of the Kamloops Residential School, Bishop John O’Grady, in 1986. “The issues raised are deeply upsetting and we take them seriously. UBC’s Senate will be reviewing this matter immediately per our processes and policies related to honorary degree recipients,” the school said in a statement.
O’Grady had received a Doctor of Laws for his role in “education to bring communities together and to open up future possibilities for members of local communities,” the statement said.
O’Grady died in 1998 in Prince George, about a six-hour drive from the Kamloops Residential School.
The Catholic Church is also under fire for its role in Canada’s residential schools.
“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.
Kamloops Bishop Joseph Nguyen told Kamloops This Week, “No words of sorrow could adequately describe this horrific discovery. Along with the people of the Diocese of Kamloops, I offer assurance of my personal support, prayers and accompaniment to our First Nations community in Kamloops and beyond.”
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken out extensively about the tragedy, ordered flags to be flown at half-mast, and encouraged provincial governments fund further investigations at residential schools under their jurisdictions, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh criticized the federal government’s “symbolic gestures,” calling instead for “something concrete.”
Singh requested an emergency debate Monday to discuss a plan of action toward reconciliation.
The horrifying discovery is leading to other Indigenous communities to seek out their missing ancestors.
The Cowessess First Nation is preparing to use the same technology employed to find the 215 bodies in order to search for any unmarked burial sites, including at the Marieval Indian Residential School, which was located on where their territory is now in southern Saskatchewan for nearly 100 years, according to CBC.
At the Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta, archivists believe that at least 70 of about 350 students, or one in five, died at school during the 26 years the school had been running. Experts believe at least 50 of those who died are buried in an unmarked cemetery in a field near where the school had been, the CBC reported.
Jackie Bromley, 70, was forced to attend a residential school in southern Alberta, and recalled students at her own school gossiping about a graveyard on the school grounds.
“I thought about the back yard, apparently there were some graves there,” Bromley told the CBC. “And the first thing I thought of [when hearing the recent news] was, I wonder if there are some kids that were buried, you know?”
She said she didn’t recall seeing any headstones, indicating that if there were graves there, they would have been unmarked.
If you or someone you know has been affected by residential schools and is seeking support, reach out to Canada-based organization Indian Residential School Survivors Society 24-hours toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.
Canadian newsmagazine Macleans has compiled a list of places to donate for those who wish to support residential school survivors.