215 Unmarked Graves: Horrible History of the...
The announcement last month that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School left the nation reeling.
Flags throughout Canada were put at half-staff and impromptu memorials comprising children’s moccasins or shoes, often marked with “215,” have sprouted, including one in front of Canada’s Parliament building in Ottawa.
“A lot of survivors, my relatives, they’ve been saying this for years and years — that there was a lot of death, there’s a lot of unmarked graves,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the country’s largest Indigenous organization, referring to children who were taken from their families and forced to attend Canada’s notorious residential schools like Kamloops to assimilate into Western culture. “But nobody ever believed the survivors,” he added. “And now with the discovery of the grave site at Kamloops, it’s just horrific, it’s tragic and it’s painful.”
About 20 years ago, an effort to find remains started at the Kamloops school, which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s, and was once Canada’s largest, with 500 students at its peak. Members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation made last month’s grim discovery after bringing in ground-penetrating radar.
Among the 215 bodies found by the radar, there appears to be one of a child who died as young as three. Chief Casimir said the bodies found so far appeared to be buried in separate “unmarked burial sites that are, to our knowledge, also undocumented.”
The residential school system
The Kamloops Indian residential school was established in 1890 under the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, and closed in 1978.
It was part of a cross-Canada network of residential schools created to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children by removing them from their homes and communities, and forbidding them from speaking their native languages or performing cultural practices. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant within these institutions, as was forced labour.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government spent six years hearing from 6,750 witnesses to document the history of the schools. In a report in 2015, it concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide.” Many students died from disease, accidents, and fires and during attempts to escape, according to the commission.
The commission also called for an apology from the pope for the Roman Catholic Church’s role. On Sunday, Pope Francis stopped short of offering a formal apology, but said that “the sad discovery further raises awareness of the pains and sufferings of the past.”
“How hard is it for the pope to say: ‘I’m very sorry for the way our organization treated the First Nations people, the First Nations students during those times, we are sorry, we pray.’" Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, Bobby Cameron, told Reuters.
Children died at the residential schools
When children died at residential schools, their families were often given vague explanations or told that they had simply run away and vanished, the commission found. When the schools acknowledged the deaths of children, they generally refused, until the 1960s, to return their bodies to their families. Remains were sent back only if it was cheaper than burying them at the schools.
In its report, the commission estimated that at least 4,100 students had died or gone missing from the residential schools, and demanded that the government account for all of those children. It did not, however, definitely say how many had disappeared.
Hundreds of people rallied at the Ontario legislature then marched through downtown Toronto on Sunday, June 6th, to honour the lives of 215 Indigenous children. The peaceful event was called "Bring Our Children Home" and it was an attempt to bring together Indigenous people, their allies, survivors of intergenerational trauma and survivors of residential schools.
Also demonstrators toppled a statue of Canadian public education official Egerton Ryerson in Toronto in growing anger over the discovery. The statue, housed at Ryerson University, will not be restored or replaced, and the school is reportedly considering changing its name. Ryerson was a 19th century Canadian education official who advocated for segregated schools for native, Black, and disabled people, which he called a necessary step in the “race of civilization,” part of the broader Canadian colonial project. Ryerson has been called an "architect" of the residential school system in Canada. There are hundreds of pairs of shoes at the base at the statue and they form a memorial to the children.
A UN human rights office spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado also said Canada must ensure "prompt and exhaustive investigations’’ into the deaths and redouble efforts to find the whereabouts of missing children, including by searching unmarked graves. The UN experts also urged the Catholic Church to provide full access to judicial authorities to the archives of the residential schools run by the institution.