Responding to historic abuse
Mass grave at closed Canadian boarding school for Indigenous children prompts reflection, more searches
To Indigenous people in Canada, the discovery last month of 215 children buried in an unmarked grave near a shuttered boarding school confirms stories they’ve heard for years.
“There is a common theme of ‘how could this happen?’” wrote Stephanie Scott, executive director of Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation. “The answer is complex—rooted in racism and unjust policies, but … I am not surprised this truth has finally come to light.”
In the U.S. and in Canada, programs to assimilate native people to modern culture through government-funded schools ended in the 20th century as poor conditions and harsh treatment at the schools came to light. In Canada, the government has apologized, and Roman Catholics are also now asking for forgiveness for their treatment of Indigenous children.
The Canadian government established Indigenous schools in the 19th century and made attendance mandatory. Officials intentionally placed many of the schools far from where tribe members lived, establishing them as boarding schools and forcing families to send their children. Roughly 150,000 First Nations children attended these Indigenous schools from 1831 to 1996.
Kamloops school, about 160 miles northwest of Vancouver, was once the largest Indigenous residential school in Canada. The Catholic Church ran it from 1890 to 1969, and the Canadian government operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978. Kamloops and other schools like it expected children to follow Christian teachings, limited contact with their families, and forbade them from speaking of native languages. Records show that about 6,000 children died at the residential Indigenous schools, and in 2008 the Canadian government admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant.
Previous official records say at least 51 indigenous children died at Kamloops between 1900 and 1971.
A search using ground-penetrating radar discovered the buried bodies of 215 children at Kamloops in May. Some of them are believed to have been as young as 3 when they died. Officials plan to search other areas of the grounds and may find more bodies.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic bishops was quick to apologize. On May 31, shortly after the announcement of the discovery, Archbishop of Winnipeg and the conference’s president Richard Gagnon issued an official conciliatory letter. He acknowledged the “heartrending loss of the children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.”
His letter also promised to “continue walking side by side” Indigenous people, and seek reconciliation. Kamloops Bishop Joseph Nguyen also apologized, and Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said last week that the church would help identify the children buried at Kamloops by opening its archives and records of residential schools.
The Catholic Church for the most part already handed over school records to the Canadian government. School narrative documents included how the school was run, key dates, principals’ names, yearly attendance, and documentation of any abuse.
“The Kamloops school’s narrative document is missing,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Colombia. She said Kamloops and another school, St. Anne’s in Ontario, never turned in their papers. Former St. Anne’s students took the federal government to court in 2013 over abuses they say they suffered.
In the United States, similar schools existed to assimilate American Indian children. In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act, which authorized the president to establish schools to teach “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as well as “the mode of agriculture suited to their situation” for tribes along frontier settlements. The law states that the education effort was to prevent “further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes,” but many say it harmed more than it helped.
The U.S. government ran about 100 American Indian boarding schools, and official reports document harsh punishments, as well as uncleanliness and poor nutrition. In 2019, Mary Annette Pember wrote that her mother attended St. Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School in Odanah, Wis. She recounts her mother’s stories of strict nuns who called her “dirty Indian.”
Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, along with lawmakers and other Indigenous groups, called for a thorough search of all Indigenous residential school grounds in Canada. “It’s part of the truth-telling in terms of true reconciliation,” Teegee said. “We need to know and understand where these children are.”
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