Graves of 215 Indigenous children in Canada brings back memories of cultural genocide

Indigenous activists and progressive groups in Canada have called for the government to commit to the process of reconciliation and speed up the identification of children who lost their lives in the notorious “Indian residential schools”

June 04, 2021 by Anish R M
Mourners and indigenous activists held a memorial at the premises of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, for the 215 children whose remains were discovered on the school grounds. Photo: Brandi Morin/Twitter

Over 215 dead bodies of children were discovered in mass graves last week on the grounds of Canada’s largest “Indian residential school.” The discovered remains are youth forced to attend the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, and include children from age three years to mid-teens. Among the 215 bodies discovered, investigators could so far only identify 50 of the children. According to the reports, the period of their deaths range from 1900 to 1971 with no markers of identity to be found for most of the bodies.

The shocking discovery, announced by the chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc tribe Rosanne Casimir, was the preliminary finding of an ongoing investigation into deaths in the historical residential schools where Indigenous children were held. The investigation is being conducted by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in the British Columbia province.

More than a week since the discovery, Canadians continue to mourn for the discovered children with memorials held in including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and dozens of other cities and towns. Survivors of the residential schools also participated in several memorials.

People across Canada have begun demanding a nationwide investigation into unmarked graves and grounds of the currently closed down residential schools. Indigenous groups and progressive movements have noted that the discovery only uncovers the truth behind the long and brutal history of colonization and genocide in Canada.

“The outrage and the surprise from the general public is welcome, no question. But the report is not surprising,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “Survivors have been saying this for years and years – but nobody believed them.”

“The news from Kamloops proves again that the residential schools were instruments of assimilation and genocide by a Canadian imperialist state which was literally built on the foundations of colonial empires,” said the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), in a statement responding to the discovery, echoing Bellegrade’s sentiments.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of British Columbia (CPBC), the provincial arm of the CPC, called for “meaningful action to end the racist legacy of colonialism and capitalism.”

“Official apologies, inquiries that result in recommendations left largely ignored by governments, legislation that evades the fundamental issue of the theft of Indigenous lands – these measures were never sufficient, and the latest expression of sorrow by prime minister Justin Trudeau and BC premier John Horgan ring completely hollow,” the statement added.

Many have pointed out that the government has often hesitated in uncovering the extent of Indigenous children’s deaths and delayed processes of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established in 2008 to investigate and uncover the history of these residential schools, had given 94 recommendations to be undertaken by the government towards reconciliation of which only 10 have been completed while the rest are either to start or are in limbo.

The Commission has also complained that a bulk of the CAD 33.8 million (close to USD 28 million), for a registry of children who died in the schools, promised by the Trudeau government in 2019, is yet to be received. The commission itself had to fight for the inclusion of these deaths and investigation of unmarked graves under its mandate in 2009.

Schools that conducted a genocide

The “Indian residential schools” were part of a large network of boarding schools funded and encouraged by the Canadian government to supposedly “civilize” and assimilate native American and First Nations children.

The currently abandoned school grounds in Kamloops was one of the dozens of such schools run by the Church. Of the 130 Indian residential schools that once operated in Canada, over two-thirds were directly under the Church. The Kamloops school was managed by the church between 1790 and 1969, after which it was taken over by the government as a boarding facility for local day school children.

Although the schools existed before the founding of Canada, laws made in the latter-half of the 19th century created federally-funded school systems, specifically for Indigenous children, very often run by Christian missionaries of various denominations. The schools were set up away from Indigenous land reserves and most students were held inside the school against their and their family’s wishes.

With legally mandated compulsory attendance, systematic exclusion of Indigenous children from local and provincial governments funded schools, and limitations placed on family visits and even movement of Indigenous people outside their land reserves, the schools became part of a brutal colonial system that separated families.

An estimated 150,000 children were held in these “Indian schools” — Indian being the word used to refer to Indigenous peoples in North America at the time — over the course of more than a century of their operation. In the extensive research and investigation conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2015, they found that the schools and the assimilation efforts by Canada amounted to cultural genocide.

The schools were notorious for a high number of reported deaths, often due to diseases and neglect. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the deaths to be as high as 3,201, as per official records. The Commission’s own report, along with independent studies, have put the numbers at least twice as high, if not more, with most deaths remaining to be accounted for.

The schools also had a long-lasting effect on Indigenous cultures in Canada, created a pandemic of mental health problems among former inmates and led to extinction of several native spoken languages along with other cultural heritage.

Although conditions in the schools started improving by the 1970s, many of them turned into hostels and other non-school facilities, several of these schools continued to operate till the 1980s. The last such federally-funded school operated as late as 1996, in the northern province of Saskatchewan.