Unraveling the Dark History Behind the 215 Indigenous Child Graves Found Under Canadian Residential School
The remains of 215 children were discovered underneath the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada last week. (picture credit: Getty Images)
The remains of 215 children were discovered underneath the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada last week. The announcement by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir sparked public outrage and calls for accountability, as preliminary findings found 215 potential grave sites of children, some as young as 3 years old. Some of these sites were unmarked mass graves bringing to light the severity of the issue. As an official report is compiled, the number of bodies is only expected to increase.
A report from BBC News quotes, "Of the remains found, 50 children are believed to have already been identified, said Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Their deaths, where known, range from 1900 to 1971. But for the other 165, there are no available records to mark their identities."
As more information surrounding the details of this case is uncovered, greater demands for a nationwide search for mass residential school graves have begun. This discovery has shown that the bodies discovered in Kamloops were not part of an isolated incident, but rather, a small part of a larger tragedy in Canada’s Residential School system. These institutions not only traumatised generations of Indigenous children, but also committed cultural genocide and the murder of Indigenous people of Canada – acts that have irreversibly damaged the community.
Canadian Residential Schools were first opened in 1890 as a system of forced cultural assimilation, targeting approximately 150,000 Indigenous and First Nations peoples. Indigenous children from various parts in Canada were forced to attend these residential schools, their parents facing the threat of prison if they refused to comply. These schools enforced orthodox Christian values, with the Catholic Church playing a major role in their founding and operation. All use of Indigenous languages and cultural practices were banned — a measure often enforced through violence — to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The conditions in the residential schools were horrific. Because of the government’s desire to cut costs, the schools were largely poorly built and lacked trained medical staff and sanitary facilities. Many students died from disease, malnutrition, fires, accidents, and escape attempts. Additionally, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse ran rampant within these school walls. Families were given little to no explanation on the deaths of their children, and most schools refused to return the bodies to them up until the 1960s. While it is confirmed that at least 4,100 students have either died or gone missing, the actual number could have been well above 6,000.
As makeshift memorials of children’s shoes are cropping up across Canada, this event has become a chilling reminder of the abuse suffered by the Indigenous peoples of Canada and how their stories have been largely ignored by the Canadian Government and media. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde remarked in a BBC article that “survivors have been saying this for years and years – but nobody believed them.” The abuse many survivors experienced in these residential schools have simply been swept under the rug.
The harmful actions against Indigenous peoples need to be remembered, and as this most recent tragedy unfolds, a long dark history unravels. This is a tragedy that is entrenched in over a century of cultural suppression and genocide and ignorance to the experiences of Indigenous peoples both historically and today. The fact that all 215 bodies discovered were children – piled into unmarked pauper graves with little clue as to who they were – speaks to the magnitude of the issue. These children were the next generation of the Indigenous and First Nations people who had lives ahead of them, who were to carry on the future and traditions of their community.
Since a large proportion of these schools were run by Catholic missionaries who forced the children to convert to Catholicism, people are pushing for Pope Francis to issue an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church. While his predecessor Pope Benedict has expressed "his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church," calls by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a formal apology from the Church have so far been declined.
Justin Trudeau has promised to preserve these Residential School grave sites and search for other burial sites, and the Government has pledged $18 million CAD [$22 Million USD] to this effort. A contrasting statement from his first three years as Prime Minister as his administration spent millions of dollars fighting Indigenous lawsuits in court. Last week, a “Bring Our Children Home” rally took place in downtown Toronto, where hundreds of people marched in honor of the Indigenous children who died at the residential schools. This is an opportunity for the public to understand the severity of this situation and sheds light on the cultural genocide that occured. Ultimately, an apology does nothing for members of the Indigenous community. They need justice, and the support and resources to continue to practice their culture and protect their traditions and teachings.
The discovery has sparked mass outrage across Canada and the US, and has amplified calls for greater accountability from the government and religious institutions over their part in residential schools and the treatment of Indigenous and First Nations people. United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, wrote an opinion in the Washington Post titled, “My grandparents were stolen from their families as children. We must learn about this history.” Calling on both the U.S and Canadian government to acknowledge and bring to light the history and trauma faced by American and Canadian Indigenous communities at the hands of the government. Exposing the largely untold history of colonialism, imperialism, and cultural and ethnic cleansing in North America – the effects of which are still very much present today.
What happened in Kamloops is not a distant or isolated event. The last residential school did not close until 1996, and there are hundreds of survivors of the residential school system alive today. This is a tragedy that is entrenched in over a century of cultural suppression and genocide. The government and people's ignorance to the experiences of Indigenous peoples both historically and today. As more people join the call for governing institutions to investigate and bring this history to light and enact further change and policy, we must continue to voice support for Indigenous and First Nations people in the struggle for justice.
We cannot allow history to repeat itself. We must listen to Indigenous voices.
**This article was originally written in July 2021**