The Kamloops Indian Residential School, circa 1930. COURTESY ARCHIVES DESCHÂTELETS-NDC, RICHELIEU

The Kamloops Indian Residential School, circa 1930. COURTESY ARCHIVES DESCHÂTELETS-NDC, RICHELIEU

Woensdregt: On a dark piece of our history

215 children in an unmarked and forgotten mass grave

Just under a week ago, a mass grave was discovered on the property of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School containing the remains of 215 children in an unmarked and forgotten mass grave.

Opened in 1893, Kamloops Indian Residential School was once the largest residential school in Canada. Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation called the discovery an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

We have heard on the news some of the painful stories told by former students at this school. They remembered that when they were present at the school, other schoolmates would disappear and were simply never spoken of again. Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band said, “I just remember that they were here one day, and they were gone the next.”

We don’t know who these children are. Chief Casimir has said that the leadership of the Tk’emlups community “acknowledges their responsibility to caretake for these lost children.”

But we do know that these children, some of them as young as three years old, are just a tiny part of a vast multitude of children who died in Residential Schools. Many of them have still been unidentified, since very few records were kept. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that at least 3,200 children died while a student at a Residential School. Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Commission, has said the true number of deaths could be as high as 6,000.

Why did so many children die? There are three primary reasons.

Many died from disease, particularly tuberculosis. They lived in cramped conditions without even the most rudimentary medical care. As a result, residential schools were hotbeds for the spread of TB.

Others died in accidents. The schools were poorly built, firetraps without even the most basic safety standards. Mass casualty incidents happened frequently.

But probably the reason which strikes closest to home is the number of children who froze or drowned while they were trying to run away. Schools routinely made no attempt to find them, and even failed to report their disappearance for days.

In many cases, the bodies of children were not returned to their families. Parents rarely learned the circumstances of their child’s death. Often, the only death notification would be to send the child’s name to the Indian Agent at his or her home community.

Here are some basic facts about the Indian Residential School system.

It was established by the Canadian government in 1884, funded by the taxes we paid, and administered by Christian churches. Of the 80 schools in operation at its peak, 44 were operated by Roman Catholics; 21 were operated by Anglicans; 15 were operated by the United Church of Canada; and 2 were operated by Presbyterians.

Children were forcibly taken from their parents and communities and sent to these boarding schools. They were not allowed to go home, even for a visit. When they got to the school, their hair would be cut off; they would be deloused; they were deprived of their culture and forbidden to speak their language; and they were required to adopt the religious denomination of the school they attended. Many were victims of physical and sexual abuse.

These schools were set up not just to educate these children. The true purpose was to indoctrinate them into white Canadian and Christian ways of living. The government’s stated policy was to ensure that indigenous children were assimilated into mainstream white Canadian society.

Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, introduced a bill in Parliament in the 1920’s to make attendance at the Residential Schools mandatory. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”

The system is responsible for the intergenerational trauma which continues to plague indigenous people. The discovery of this mass grave will kindle terrible memories for our indigenous brothers and sisters. As Chief Casimir said, this was “spoken about but never documented”. This discovery confirms the stories that indigenous people have been telling for many years. This is a grief which never subsides, and this event will trigger deep pain.

This discovery is another example of a one of the darkest chapters of our Canadian history. It is a heartbreaking tragedy, and a gripping reminder of what we have done in the past. We dare not forget what has happened.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked hard for six years. Its final report points to the urgent task to which we are all called. The Commission listened to the tragic stories told by so many indigenous people. Justice Murray Sinclair, the Chair of the TRC, described this shameful episode in Canadian history as “cultural genocide”, and noted that any who would engage in these horrific activities today would be subject to prosecution at the World Court.

The final report of the Commission includes 94 calls to action. We must change our governmental policies. We must engage in a systematic program of reconciliation, which includes naming the harm we have done. We must change the way in which we talk to and about one another.

One of the ongoing tragedies of this history of colonialism is that there are still so many people who don’t know about this part of our history. Even more horrifying is the number of people who deny this ever happened. The first step in reconciliation is to know what we have done. We can’t heal if we keep pretending we have not been hurt.

We are beginning to take the first tiny steps in a long–term journey which will lead to the kind of reconciliation which will lead to healing. This latest piece of news reminds us again just how urgent the task is.

~ Rev. Yme Woensdregt