Two back-to-back discoveries this year of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children are sending shockwaves across Canada and throughout North American Indigenous communities. The children, who were students at residential boarding schools from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, died far from home after having suffered brutal abuse and neglect. For decades, Indigenous children in both Canada and the United States were taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools, where they were forced to assimilate to Euro-American culture.
Last Thursday, Cadmus Delorme, Chief of the Cowessess First Nation, announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves of mostly Indigenous children at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in the southeast corner of the Saskatchewan province.
In late May, Chief Roseanne Casimir, of the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation, announced that researchers using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) had discovered the unmarked burials of 215 students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Some children buried onsite had been as young as 3 years old, the First Nation noted in a statement.
After the Kamloops news broke, the Cowessess First Nation initiated the scanning of Marieval with GPR on June 2, Delorme reported in a virtual press conference.
“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” Delorme says.
The finds have rekindled a national reckoning with the traumatic history of Canada’s residential schooling system, a practice that systematically separated Indigenous children from their families and sent them to church- and government-operated boarding schools across the country.
On Twitter, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FISN), the provincial federation of Indigenous groups, noted that survivors of residential schools in need of support can call a toll-free line at 800-721-0066 or a 24-hour crisis line at 866-925-4419.
The boarding school system “was a crime against humanity, an assault on a First Nation people,” Chief Bobby Cameron, of FISN, tells Ian Austen and Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times.
“The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous,” says Cameron.
Canada’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008 to investigate the residential schools, stated in the 2015 report “What We Have Learned” that nearly 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students passed through the system. About 150 schools operated in the country in total, from the first schools founded in the few years before Canada’s 1867 founding to the last school closure in the late 1990s. (The United States government funded about 350 such schools.)
For children sent to—or forced to attend—the Marieval and Kamloops schools, the experience was, according to the Canadian analysis, “lonely and alien.” Students faced harsh punishment and were often prey to sexual and physical abuse from the priests, nuns, ministers or teachers that operated their institutions. Aboriginal cultures and the student’s native languages were “demeaned and suppressed,” in what the government now describes as an attempted “cultural genocide,” per the report.
Some experts estimate that more than 4,000 children died at the schools, often from a combination of poor living conditions and disease, per the 2015 report. But Murray Sinclair, the Indigenous former judge who led the commission, tells the New York Times that the true total may actually be “well beyond 10,000.”
Founded by Roman Catholic priests in 1889, the Marieval Indian Residential School operated until 1997, per the CBC News. The Canadian federal government began funding the school in 1901 and took over administration in 1969, until turning the school over to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987, report Amanda Coletta and Michael E. Miller for the Washington Post. The Roman Catholic church also founded and operated the Kamloops school for most of its years, from the 1890s to the late 1970s.
The Canadian federal government has set aside funds for Indigenous groups to carry out similar research at residential schools, to seek out and commemorate the dead, per the Post. “The findings in Marieval and Kamloops … are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced—and continue to face—in this country,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted in a statement last week. “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.”
On Thursday, amidst renewed pleas from Indigenous leaders to Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, to apologize, as Alec Salloum reports for the Regina Leader-Post, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Regina Donald Bolen said he and others were trying to bring about an apology for the church’s role in operating boarding schools and perpetuating the abuse of Indigenous children. As Matthew S. Schwartz reported for NPR earlier this month, the Pope offered his condolences regarding the Kamloops discovery but stopped short of offering a full apology for the church’s actions—despite consistent urging from the Canadian federal government.
This week, spurred in part by the discovery at Kamloops, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced plans to investigate the “troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies” in the United States. Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, recently wrote about her own family’s history with boarding schools, including her great-grandfather who attended the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
Like Canada, the “United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “I am a product of these horrific assimilationist policies,” she added.
“The lasting and profound impacts of the federal government’s boarding school system have never been appropriately addressed.”