Indigenous Canadians are mourning the loss of 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave at a former residential school in British Columbia.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was one of about 130 just like it that operated from the late 1800s to the late 1960s. First Nations children were forcibly taken there to be assimilated into Christian culture.
Some of the remains of children found at the site were as young as 3 years old, says National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde.
The gravesite was discovered using ground-penetrating radar. Many graves like this have been found over the years at residential schools in Canada.
No record of these 215 deaths existed before now because of coverups and lack of documentation, Bellegarde says.
“A lot of the survivors knew of these gravesites, but nobody believed them,” he says. “Here's the tragic, painful evidence of gravesites being found. And so now nobody can deny that the residential schools were a genocide of our people.”
Canada’s residential school system forcibly took children from their families and placed them in institutions rife with physical, mental and sexual abuse, he says. The overcrowded schools had poor health conditions and the children suffered malnutrition.
The schools aimed to assimilate First Nations children into Christian Canadian culture. Children were forbidden to speak their indigenous languages, isolated from their families and forced to cut their long hair, he says.
Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 forbade First Nations people from leaving reservations without a permit and hiring lawyers until 1951, he says. And First Nations people couldn’t vote until 1960.
These restrictions prevented parents and grandparents from leaving the reservation to check on their children, he says. When children went missing, guardians often weren’t notified and the schools would explain the disappearance as a runaway.
“This is just scratching the surface and revealing a great pain that's going to have to be dealt with soon because there's a lot of hurt,” he says. “People can't go on and in a lot of cases, a lot of questions [are] left unanswered.”
The 4,100 number comes from existing records, he says, but many deaths went undocumented and some records from churches have not yet been shared.
“When you don't document death and you don't commemorate it, you don't mark it, there's something wrong with that,” he says.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report in 2015 that included 94 calls to action. Bellegarde is calling for better implementation of all the calls to action.
Canada needs to work toward documenting and researching all 130 residential school sites, he says. These sacred sites also need to be commemorated with the help of indigenous elders.
“We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality — a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it,” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said earlier this week. “Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged or not returned at all.”
Bellegarde is asking Trudeau to provide the support and resources needed to find all of the graves of the First Nations’ “stolen children.” He plans to keep pushing the government to make good on the promises it made.
Canada announced $27 million in funds are available to help locate children who died at residential schools.
“When the needs have been identified, when the needs have been clearly articulated, those needs should be met in terms of both human and financial resources,” he says.
Many of the schools were run by the Catholic Church. The Truth Reconciliation Commission’s 58th action item calls for a papal apology from Pope Francis.
“The Catholic Church is the only church so far that has not formally apologized. Other churches have,” Bellegarde says. “So that would be part of healing, that would be part of truth-telling, that would be part of reconciliation for the survivors and the families to hear from the highest office within the Catholic Church.”
For now, the priority is action items 71 to 76, which deal with commentating and researching the sites, he says.
This week, people have been placing memorials around Canada with empty shoes to symbolize the lives lost at the residential schools.
The generational trauma First Nations communities feel is reflected in statistics, he says: 40,000 children in foster care, youth suicide rates five to seven times the national average, a disproportionate number of incarcerated people, opioid and alcohol addiction on reservations.
“The quality of life for First Nations people in Canada is directly linked to colonization and oppression of the residential schools and the Indian Act and the disposition of our lands and resources and territories,” he says. “It's all linked, so the intergenerational trauma is huge.”
Bellegarde envisions a future where First Nations children are proud of their culture and language — all 60 different indigenous languages in Canada.
Education in math and literacy as well as vocational training help people out of poverty, he says, but First Nations children also need to learn about their language and customs — something the residential schools tried to strip away.
“We have to provide the hope and the vision that we can learn from the past and as a country, never go back there,” he says. “But we've got to provide a shared future together, that our children and grandchildren will have a bright future.”
This segment aired on June 3, 2021.