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UN calls for investigations after mass graves discovered at former residential schools

On 27 May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., reported the discovery of more than 200 remains of children at the site of what once was Canada’s largest residential school.

The institution operated from 1890 to 1969, mostly under a Catholic order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The federal government then took over and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978. The recent discovery was made after a government grant allowed the nation to pay for ground-penetrating radar which allowed them to locate and probe the site. It contained the remains of 215 children.

In response, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) put out a call to action to urge Canada to conduct ‘prompt, exhaustive investigations’ for residential school victims to uncover the remains of former students that may have been left in unmarked graves.

The UN said the “shocking and painful Kamloops discovery” should inspire Canada to implement Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action, which included a section on missing children and burial information. Introduced in a 2015 report, commissioners called for the establishment of a student death registry and an online registry of residential school cemeteries. At the time, the TRC registry confirmed just 51 deaths at the Kamloops residential school from 1914 to 1963.

Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson for the United Nations, called on the federal government to double its efforts in locating the whereabouts of missing children.

“Historic abuses against Indigenous children in government-run educational and health institutions continue to affect the lives of Indigenous communities”, Hurtado said on 2 June. “The intergenerational impacts deriving from them continue to be significant, including at the linguistic, economic and cultural level”.

She said healing would only be possible after Indigenous communities are given access to documents about missing or dead family members and forensic studies are carried out to ensure the proper identification of remains. Appropriate compensation, official apologies, memorials and rehabilitative services should also be considered—which she called “cornerstones for reconciliation”.

In a statement on 4 June, retired Senator Murray Sinclair, the former TRC chair, said he predicts as many as 6,000 children may have died at residential schools.

“We know there are lots of sites similar to Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future. We need to begin to prepare ourselves for that”, said Sinclair. “We did what we could, but it was not anywhere near what we needed to accomplish and needed to investigate. Now we’re beginning to see evidence of the numbers of children who died”.

On 24 June (just after National Indigenous Peoples Day on 21 June), the Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary discovery of 751 remains at the former Marieval Indian Residential School site in Saskatchewan. The school operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where Cowessess is now located, about 140 kilometres east of Regina. The discovery marks the most substantial discovery of unmarked graves to date.

“We are seeing the results of the genocide that Canada committed—genocide on our treaty land”, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said in a virtual press conference on 24 June.

Residential schools were part of a federal policy to assimilate Indigenous children into European culture between the 1870s and 1990s. The initiative separated children from their families, housing them in poorly funded federally or church-operated schools. The last closed in Saskatchewan in 1996.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a statement of apology to former students on behalf of the federal government.

“For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities. Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture”, the statement reads. “These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child’. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country”.

The Roman Catholic Church, which operated up to 70 per cent of residential schools, has not yet issued a formal apology for its role in the school system, nor for the mass graves found at the sites. However, Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse did issue a formal apology on 21 June to Indigenous people for the church’s role in the residential school system and called for Pope Francis to apologize as well.

In a statement on 24 June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that federal funding and resources would continue to be provided to “bring these terrible wrongs to light”.

“While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can—and we will—tell the truth of these injustices and we will forever honour their memory”, he said. “The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced—and continue to face—in this country. Together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future”.

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Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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