Indigenous people in Canada grapple with ‘unthinkable loss’

Remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a former residential school in the province of British Columbia this week.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School, founded in 1890, became the largest school in the residential school system with enrollment peaking in the early 1950s at 500 Indigenous children [Library and Archives Canada/Handout via Reuters]

Indigenous people across Canada are grappling with the discovery of the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children, including some as young as three, at the site of a former residential school in the western province of British Columbia this week.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation chief Rosanne Casimir announced (PDF) on Thursday that the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, saying “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented” had been confirmed.

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“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Casimir said.

“Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”

The discovery of the mass grave has spurred “a collective pain and trauma” for Indigenous communities across Canada, said Danielle Morrison, an Anishinaabe lawyer. “Currently there [are] fires being lit, pipes are being lit, and ceremonies being held to honour all of those lost lives of those precious children,” she told Al Jazeera.

“This news is a stark reminder of the violence inflicted by the residential school system and the wounds carried by communities, families and Survivors into the present,” the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba also said in a statement.

For more than 100 years, Canadian authorities forcibly separated thousands of Indigenous children from their families and made them attend residential schools, which aimed to sever Indigenous family and cultural ties and assimilate the children into white Canadian society.

The schools, which were run by churches from the 1870s until 1996, were rife with physical, mental and sexual abuse, neglect, and other forms of violence, and they created a cycle of intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people across Canada.

Founded in 1890 and run by the Catholic Church, the Kamloops Indian Residential School eventually became the largest school in Canada’s residential school system, counting 500 children at its enrollment peak in the early 1950s.

“The residential schools were opened with the sole purpose of removing the Indian from the child,” Morrison said. “It was to assimilate Indigenous people in Canada and it’s essentially, in the words of one of the superintendents at the time, to get rid of the ‘Indian problem’.”

During an online commemoration on Saturday, Karen Joseph, CEO of the Reconciliation Canada charity, said the discovery in Kamloops marked the first time a “whispered knowing was made real” and its effect is being felt across the country, especially by residential school survivors.

“Although those children that we are referring to right now went to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, we know that all of those children were not from Kamloops. That was the nature of residential schools, it was to take our children as far away from our homelands,” Joseph said.

“The grief is not localised into that community, and it is a huge burden that they are carrying right now.”

‘Cultural genocide’

In 2015, a national truth and reconciliation commission said the Canadian government had committed “cultural genocide” by forcing more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend residential schools.

“The question of what happened to their loved ones and where they were laid to rest has haunted families and communities,” the commission said in its report, about the children who never returned home. “Throughout the history of Canada’s residential school system, there was no effort to record across the entire system the number of students who died while attending the schools each year.”

More than 4,100 children died due to disease or in an accident at the schools have been identified to date, the commission said, but efforts continue to identify others.

Derek Fox, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Ontario, said on Saturday that the discovery in Kamloops “shows how the legacy of the Residential School system continues to impact the lives of Residential School survivors and the families of those who never returned home”.

“Even after all these years there are new tragedies of the Residential School system coming to light,” Fox said in a statement.

The Canadian government formally apologised for the residential school system in 2008, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that the discovery of the children’s bodies “is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history”.

In an open letter to Trudeau on Saturday, Chief R Stacey Laforme of Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation urged him to lower flags across Canada and declare a national day of mourning for the children.

But observers have pointed out that residential school survivors have been forced to sue Ottawa to seek reparations and accountability for what happened to them.

Last year, CBC News reported the government had spent 3.2 million Canadian dollars ($2.6m) fighting a group of survivors of St Anne’s Indian Residential School, an Ontario residential school rife with abuse, in court over a 10-year period.

Others have also pointed out that while the residential schools may be closed, Indigenous children continue to be taken away from their families in disproportionate numbers across Canada.

According to census data, more than 52 percent of children in foster care in 2016 were Indigenous, while Indigenous children made up only 7.7 percent of the country’s total population.

“This is not a historical event,” said Joseph during the online event on Saturday. “This continues today – the loss of our children and the loss of our people for no other reason than the colour of our skin.”

Source: Al Jazeera