The bodies of 215 children have been discovered in a mass grave near a former residential school used to “assimilate” indigenous children in Canada, highlighting an often-forgotten period of the country’s recent history.
The bodies were discovered at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month with the help of ground-penetrating radar, according to an announcement on Thursday, May 27 by the chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.
While the rumors of mass graves at the school grounds were known among the local community, its scale had never been documented and formally recognized. It remains unclear how exactly the children died, but it appears they were the victims of the abuse that was rife in the residential school system. So far, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has revealed the identity of over 50 of the buried children, who died between 1919 until 1964.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, said in a statement. “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 Kamloops Industrial School in Kamloops, British Columbia, was opened in 1890 under administration by the Roman Catholic Church and became the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. It was taken over by the federal government in 1969. It was eventually closed in 1978.
Through the 19th century and 20th century, Canada ran a network of boarding schools for the indigenous population. Largely administered by the Catholic Church, the system was a state-backed colonial effort to forcibly “assimilate” the indigenous people of Canada into Christian European-Canadian culture. Children were effectively taken from their families and ordered to attend boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their families’ traditional culture.
Its methods were hugely destructive and aimed to eradicate indigenous cultures and their languages. Physical and sexual abuse was prolific within the system, and a shocking number of children died within the schools. Exact numbers are not known, but it’s been estimated over 6,000 children died while attending the schools.
Canada has formally recognized this horrific chapter of history through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Their primary report, published in 2015, concluded that their schools amounted to "cultural genocide".
In light of this recent discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, numerous politicians have offered contrition. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart - it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
The Catholic Church has previously refused to apologize for abuses that occurred within the residential schools in Canada under their watch. Prime Minister Trudeau personally wrote to Pope Francis calling for an apology in 2018, but the appeal was flat-out rejected. There are now fresh calls for the church to condemn their role in the tragedy.