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Canada: More Unmarked Graves Likely At Former Residential School Site

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A makeshift memorial to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility is seen as orange light drapes the facade of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 2, 2021.
A makeshift memorial grows to honour the children whose remains were found at the former Kamloops school

A indigenous nation has called on the Canadian government to release residential school attendance records to help identify unmarked graves.

In May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the initial discovery of 215 unmarked graves near the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Presenting the full report on Thursday, the nation said they expect more graves to be found as the search continues.

An early discovery of children’s bones helped guide the search.

The initial findings from the Tk’emlúps this spring triggered a national reckoning over Canada’s legacy of residential schools. In the months that followed, the tally of these unmarked graves across the country has increased to more than 1,100.

These government-funded boarding schools were part of a policy to attempt to assimilate indigenous children and destroy indigenous cultures and languages.

Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia was the largest in the country. Opened under a Roman Catholic administration in 1890, the school had as many as 500 students until its closure in 1978.

“The residential schools were specifically built to take the Indian out of us,” said residential school survivor Evelyn Camille. She became ashamed of her identity, she said. “That’s what residential schools taught me.”

Ground-surveying teams have identified more than 200 potential grave sites after searching two acres near the school. More than 160 acres still require investigations.

“There are very likely to be a number of human burials in the area,” said ground-penetrating radar specialist Sarah Beaulieu, who presented the findings. “This investigation has barely scratched the surface.”

The initial area of interest was was chosen after Tk’emlúps elders recalled children, some as young as six, being asked to dig holes there, Ms Beaulieu said.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépem Chief Rosanne Casimir appealed to both the federal government and the Catholic Church to release attendance records from the school to help identify the remains.

She said providing the records would be a “first step” in assisting the investigation.

“We are not here for retaliation, we’re here for truth-telling,” she said.

Estimates by indigenous leaders suggest over 6,000 children died at residential schools from causes like disease, accident or suicide.

The record-keeping at residential schools when children died was often poor – the child’s name, gender or cause of death were not always recorded. The common practice was not to send the bodies back home.

Many children were buried in neglected graves.

To this day there is no complete picture of the number of children who died in residential schools, the circumstances of their deaths, or where they are buried.

Timeline: The key dates

Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald, authorises the creation of a residential school system, established by Christian churches and the federal government, with the intent to assimilate indigenous peoples in Canada.

Macdonald was prime minister from 1867-1873 and again from 1878-1891
Macdonald was prime minister from 1867-1873 and again from 1878-1891

Residential schools are made compulsory for children from age seven to 15. Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children are eventually taken from their homes, with many parents surrendering them under threat of prosecution.

Children in a residential school dormitory in the 1950s
Children in a residential school dormitory in the 1950s

The residential school system begins to wind down – though the last school will close in 1996 – as the psychological and cultural impacts of the schools come under growing scrutiny.

An estimated 6,000 children die at the schools, according to the former chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Murray Sinclair. They die from causes like disease, neglect, or accidents. Physical and sexual abuse is also common.

There is still no full picture of the number of children who died or where many of them are buried.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issues a formal apology for the residential school system, which saw over 130 such institutions operating across Canada.

“Today, we recognise that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country,” he says.

Prime Minister Harper with Phil Fontaine, a Canadian Indigenous leader, in 2008
Prime Minister Harper with Phil Fontaine, a Canadian Indigenous leader, in 2008

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada releases its final report on the legacy of residential schools and describes the central policy behind the system as one of  “cultural genocide”. It recommends funding to find burial sites and commemorate the children who died away from home.

Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation in British Columbia announces that a preliminary investigation, using ground penetrating radar, has found an estimated 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school. Other First Nations in Canada are conducting similar research.

A memorial near the spot where the remains of the children were discovered
A memorial near the spot where the remains of the children were discovered
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