Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the recent discovery of more than 200 bodies in the grounds of what was the country’s largest Indigenous residential school — where Indigenous children were sent after being removed from their communities — as a “painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter” of the nation’s history.
Earlier this week, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanna Casimir confirmed the remains of 215 children, some of whom were believed to have been as young as 3 years old, in the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The remains were discovered using a radar specialist, who has yet to complete a survey of the school’s grounds, Casimir said.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Casimir said in a statement.
Residential schools were “an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide” against the country’s Indigenous population, according to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report in 2015. The system was created to separate Aboriginal youths from their families and “indoctrinate children” into a new culture, the report said, with the system in place for over a century — the last such school closed in the 1990s. The report detailed many instances of physical abuse and neglect at the institutions.
At least 150,000 Indigenous children were part of the system while it was active, and more than 6,000 are estimated to have died, according to that 2015 report. There was no recorded cause of death in around half of the cases, and the true number of deaths is unlikely to be ever known due the number of destroyed and incomplete records, according to the report. Enrolment at Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was open from 1890 to 1978, peaked at around 500 at any one time, according to Casimir.
“It’s painful to hear that 215 bodies were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School,” Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, posted on Twitter. “While it is not new to find graves at former Residential Schools in [Canada], it’s always crushing to have that chapter’s wounds exposed. Let us not forget them.”
Trudeau said the discovery “breaks my heart.” The Canadian government apologized for the residential schools system in 2008, but Pope Francis has not apologized for the role of the Catholic Church, which operated around two-thirds of the schools, according to The Associated Press.
“The mistreatment of Indigenous children is a tragic and shameful part of Canada’s history,” the lawmaker Carolyn Bennett, who serves as the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said in a statement. “Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that removed Indigenous children from their communities. … We remain committed to supporting survivors, their families and communities through their healing journeys.”