Indigenous groups are demanding action after the remains of 215 children were found at a former Canadian residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.
The bodies discovered on May 27 are those of First Nation students who attended the school while it was in operation from 1890 to 1978. The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had been trying to unearth the remains for more than 20 years before a breakthrough was made possible thanks to a ground-penetrating radar funded by a grant from the province's Pathway to Healing program.
Children as young as 3 years old are thought to be among the unidentified students whose deaths were undocumented.
The heartbreaking discovery plunged the entire country into mourning, prompting condolences from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other political leaders.
“As prime minister, I am appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities,” said Trudeau, who had flags on federal buildings flown at half-mast.
"Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We're not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth,” he added. “Residential schools were a reality — a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it."
A few scenes today from a vigil held in honour of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Vancouver, B.C., on May 28, 2021. (Ben Nelms/ @cbcnewsbc) pic.twitter.com/fFTQWCsSM0— Ben Nelms (@Ben_Nelms) May 29, 2021
A dark chapter in Canada's history, residential schools are considered by many to have been the cause of much of the country's social ills — from high poverty rates to unemployment and much more. The boarding schools were run by the Canadian government from the 1870s to the 1990s and were sponsored by churches to strip Indigenous children of their culture and language and replace them with English and Christian beliefs.
Attendance was mandatory and many students were forcibly sent from their homes and families to attend.
“There are many children who went to residential schools who did not come home. And there was never any kind of explanation given when they asked about their children,” Crystal Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich'in woman, told CTV News in a phone interview.
Many families were left without any answers after their children died, and as a result, without any money to settle their final bills upon death. In response to these circumstances, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was appointed by Trudeau to end the grim legacy of residential schools and make reparations for the horrific practices within them.
In 2015, the TRC finished its work with 94 recommendations on how the federal government could offer reparations to survivors of residential schools and ensure no one else suffers from their legacy ever again. Its final report stated the schools were tantamount to “cultural genocide” and included six calls to action urging the government to uncover burial sites across the country.
These recommendations were only partially addressed, despite groups hinting at the existence of mass graves and suggesting that the death toll was much higher than estimated by the TRC.
“A lot of the survivors have been saying that there were a lot of deaths, a lot of burials and a lot of unmarked graves, not only in Kamloops but in all the residential schools,” National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said on Monday. “The sad part is, nobody believed them.”
Indigenous groups are now demanding action from the government to make up for its past failures and follow through on the TRC’s calls to action.
Among their demands are the protection of residential school sites, which they say has been blocked by bureaucratic hurdles, “adequate resources” for more investigations, and a statutory holiday on Sept. 30 to pay tribute to victims and survivors. They have also requested that municipal governments, universities, and monuments honouring those who played an active part in establishing the residential school system be renamed.
Over the weekend, people across the country gathered to commemorate the victims and call for justice. A display of candles, toys, and shoes from Indigenous artist Ecko Aleck was placed on the steps of the B.C. legislature in a moving tribute to the children.