An Indigenous children’s grave unearths Canada’s grim history
The discovery of an unmarked grave holding the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children, including one possibly as young as age 3, has shaken Canada. The burial place was found using a ground-penetrating radar at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the preliminary finding near the grounds of what was once the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church and was one of Canada’s largest.
What happened to these children?
Residential schools were government-sponsored religious institutions intended to deal with what was once called the “Indian problem,” by forcibly assimilating Indigenous children into white culture. In the 19th century, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, is quoted in historical records as saying, “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools, where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” A network of 130 residential schools was established across the country beginning in the 1870s, and the last one didn’t close its doors until the mid-1990s.
For over a century, children of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples – the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis – were forcibly removed from their homes. Not only were the children banned from speaking their languages and forced to convert to Christianity, but the schools were also rife with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse – and in extreme cases, even death. Survivors have long said that many of their classmates simply disappeared, their actual fates unknown.
Were these sorts of graves a surprise?
They shouldn’t have been. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded that Canada committed “cultural genocide” in removing 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes, and the report’s fourth volume is titled “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.” So far 4,100 children are known to have died, but many estimate the number to be higher.
But even if the statistics have been known, the discovery has been devastating, touching off vigils and commemorations across the country. For survivors, it has resurfaced tragic memories, many of which have been suppressed, says Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society in British Columbia.
It’s also shocking for the rest of Canada, she says. Much like the video of the murder of George Floyd catapulted society to better understand police brutality against Black Americans, this finding gives proof of the genocidal policies of colonialization. “We are a country that’s supposed to be the leader in human rights, equality, and justice for all, and embracing diversity to the point where that’s our motto,” says Ms. White. “And in one fell swoop, that perception was shattered to the core.”
How is Canada responding?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who came into office with reconciliation with Indigenous groups as a key promise, called the discovery of the children’s bodies “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
But for many this is not about the past, but about the present life of Indigenous communities across the country. Residential schools may be closed but their legacy can still be felt, most directly in the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous children in foster care. “We’re living in an era where there are more Indigenous children in [foster] care than there ever were in residential schools,” says John Borrows, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous law at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Despite flags flying at half-staff and outrage expressed by Canadian officials, many Indigenous communities fault the government for lofty rhetoric that does not match reality. For example, while the government has awarded $3.23 billion (Canadian; U.S.$2.67 billion) in compensation to survivors of residential schools, it is also involved in a lengthy and costly fight against survivors from a notorious former residential school in Ontario.
With this most recent finding, the government is under pressure to move faster on the 94 Calls to Action issued by the TRC. The government said this week it would distribute $27 million to help Indigenous communities locate the remains of other victims of residential schooling.