Trigger warning: This story discusses details regarding the genocide at Canadian residential schools that may be upsetting.
Recently, 215 unmarked graves in a former residential school in British Columbia, Canada, where remains of children as young as 3 years old were found. The school was known as Kamloops Indian Residential School from the 1800s to the 1960’s and is one of 130 residential schools that forcibly withheld indigenous children. As Catholic missionaries were primarily in charge of residential schools and for assimilating indigenous children into Western culture, many were beaten and starved. Children were not allowed to speak their language, practice their culture nor see their families.
Canada’s unmarked graves
More than 150,000 children were separated from their families and sent to Canada’s residential schools for a century. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada estimates 4,100 children died which caused an investigation for unmarked graves at residential schools. The second unmarked grave site was found at Marieval Indian Residential Schools using ground-penetrating radar. About 751 unmarked graves were found at the residential school. Another mass grave site found was close to St. Eugene’s Mission School with 182 unmarked graves. Three unmarked graves have been found just in Canada. More are expected to be found. This was an entire generation of children who had their lives stolen and were never returned home.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that the residential schools were part of Canada’s colonial past. Trudeau issued an apology in 2008 for what happened in the residential schools. Furthermore, he recognized the sexual abuse and physical abuse that took place in the schools. Basically, Canada takes responsibility for what they did to First Nations and their children. After all, the schools were funded by the Canadian government. Trudeau has requested Pope Francis to issue an apology for the Catholic church’s responsibility in the boarding school era. However, Pope Francis has yet to issue an apology. Later this year, many indigenous leaders will meet with the Pope to try persuade him make an official apology.
U.S. investigates boarding schools
Last month, US Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland announced that the Department of Interior will investigate US mission boarding schools. The investigation will include burial sites, historical records of boarding school locations and enrollment logs of children’s names and tribal affiliations. Therefore, the agency will work with local tribes to make sure to protect burial sites and information. Many Americans are unaware that native children in the US were also forced to go to mission boarding schools. Native children were also abused and mistreated; they were punished for speaking their language and forced to assimilate to western culture. Equally important, many children died so there is good reason to believe that there are unmarked graves in the US native children were taken from their families and communities for more than 150 years with many who also never returned.
This is cultural genocide
Clearly, what happened to indigenous children is a cultural genocide. Too many lives were taken and many Indigenous peoples live with the repercussions of the boarding school era. Indigenous people are looking at options to hold those responsible for their crimes during the boarding school era accountable. So far, the Canadian police has not made any efforts to label these unmarked grave sites as a crime scene. Moreover, it is unclear if anyone will be held accountable and when. What is clear, is that these crimes cannot go unpunished. The Canadian government should be working together with First Nations to hold perpetrators accountable. Part of recognizing the wrongs of the past is to also make sure that the Canadian government is doing right by First Nations today. The Canadian government has the power to uphold the human rights of First Nations as well as listen to them.
Many were just children and their childhoods were taken from them by governments who wanted control of their lands. In addition, there are many who survived and remember their time in the boarding schools. Survivors and families are going to need support and time to get through this difficult time. As the US prepares to search for unmarked graves, they will have to recognise their role in the boarding school era. They will also have to recognize the cultural genocide that the US committed against Indigenous peoples. The US will have to confront their past and how they respond will matter.
Canada’s Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.