Photo: Kamloops Indian Residential School
The remains of 215 Indigenous children as young as 3 years old were discovered at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada late last week. This discovery comes after a preliminary investigation with ground-penetrating radar on the school’s land revealed a mass grave. The residential school was a former “boarding school” designed to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children into white Canadian culture after being removed from their families. Approximately 150,000 children in Canada were removed from homes and families between 1883 and 1996.
A press release from Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc, formerly known as the Kamloops Indian Band and one of the First Nations governments within the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council in British Columbia, stated that the preliminary work was carried out in the 2000s but the latest technology facilitated a true accounting of the missing children only recently.
From the 19th century until the late 1970s, Indigenous children were forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where they were made to convert to Christianity, barred from speaking their native languages, poorly nourished, and were abused both physically and verbally. 4,100 children are estimated to have died during this time. Also, experimentation on Indigenous children in residential schools using malnutrition and hunger was conducted by physician Lionel Pett, which eventually shaped Canada’s nutrition policy.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was open between 1890 to 1978 and was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969. As such this discovery brings renewed scrutiny into the Church’s operations. Additionally, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches were major denominations that oversaw the operation of the residential school system. Indigenous children were forced by Canadian law to attend residential schools. If not, the parents would face legal penalties like prison time.
The exact cause of death of these children is being investigated. According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, fires, infectious diseases like tuberculosis and other infections were main causes of the deaths of children in residential schools. The Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc government will also be collaborating with a local museum archivist and the Royal British Columbia Museum for any historical records. Other archivists are also searching records of the Catholic order to find any burial records of the children.
Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc authorities will also be looking for other possible graves on-site. Unmarked burial sites at residential schools have also been found in other places in Canada like Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Completion of preliminary findings is anticipated by mid-June.
Like Canada, the government of the United States used the same tactic of forced attendance at boarding schools in its genocide of Indigenous peoples. The results were the same: thousands dead, abused, and subject to cruel and dehumanizing treatment aimed at wiping out their culture. Both the Canadian and U.S. government must take action now to provide reparations for the ongoing colonization, dispossession, and discrimination of Native peoples.