In May, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in Canada’s most prominent residential school.
After the first discovery, two more unmarked graves were found. So far more that 1,100 remains have been discovered. There is a national outrage in Canada as the legacy of residential schools has been questioned.
So what exactly were residential schools? They are not unlike the Indian Boarding Schools from the U.S. They are government funded boarding schools created to strip Indiegneous children of their culture and languages.
The schools were active from the 19th century until the 1970s. They were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations. The primary goal of these schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society.
The Canadian government admitted previously that physical and sexual abuse occured frequently at the schools. Children would get beaten for speaking their native languages.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on June 25th that Canadians are ashamed of the policies of the boarding schools.
“Candians today are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved,” Trudeau said. “It was a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language and forced assimilation upon them.”
Canadian Indigenous leaders have referred to the residential schools as a “cultural genocide.”
The first set of remains were found in southern British Columbia. It is estimated that some of the remains are as young as three. All of the children were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Ground-penetrating radar technology allowed Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir to find the remains. There had been preliminary work to find and identify the burial sites in the early 2000s.
In June, 751 unmarked graves were found in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. The remains were discovered near another former school, the Marieval Indian Residential School. The school was open from 1899-1996 and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
The leaders in Cowessess are not sure if all the graves belonged to children. And, Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme continues to impress the discovery was of unmarked graves rather than a mass grave site.
A week after, the Lower Kootenay Band in British Columbia found 182 remains near the St. Eugene’s Mission School.
The true death toll, the manner and circumstances surrounding the deaths are still undetermined. Closer home, the United States agreed to investigate federal boarding schools to unearth possibly more burial sites of Native American children.
The announcement was made by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to the National Congress of American Indians. Haaland stated that the program would address the atrocities inflicted upon those who were forcibly ripped from their communities to be culturally assimilated into other schools. “I know that this process will be long and difficult,” she said. “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.” Haaland has previously written for the Washington Post where she spoke about her grandparents being stolen from their families as children. Read her opinion piece here.