KAMLOOPS, British Columbia – The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school – one of the facilities that have housed children from families across the country.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a press release that the remains were confirmed with the help of ground radar last weekend.
More bodies could be found as more areas need to be searched on the school grounds, Casimir said Friday.
In a previous publication she called the discovery “an unthinkable loss that was talked about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” It was once the location of Canada’s largest residential school.
From the 19th century through the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were enrolled in government-funded Christian schools as part of a program of integration into Canadian society. They had to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their mother tongues. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are believed to have died.
The Canadian government apologized in parliament in 2008, admitting that physical and sexual abuse in schools was widespread. Many students remember being beaten for speaking their mother tongue. They also lost touch with their parents and customs.
Indigenous leaders have reservations about this legacy of abuse and isolation as the leading cause of the epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission report more than five years ago said at least 3,200 children had died from abuse and neglect, and there were reports of at least 51 deaths at Kamloops School alone between 1915 and 1963.
“This really re-emerges the problem of residential schools and the wounds of this legacy of indigenous genocide,” said Terry Teegee, First Nations Assembly regional chief for British Columbia, Friday.
British Columbia Prime Minister John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” when he heard of the discovery, calling it a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” involving the violence and consequences of the residential school system highlights.
The Kamloops School was in operation between 1890 and 1969 when the federal government took over the operation of the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until its closure in 1978.
Casimir said the deaths are believed to be undocumented, although a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if records of the deaths can be found.
“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 enrolled and concurrent students, we know this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” Casimir said in the first press release released late Thursday has been.
The leadership of the Tk’emlups community “recognizes their responsibility to care for these lost children,” said Casimir.
Access to the latest technology allows real accounting for the missing children and will hopefully bring peace and closure to the lost lives, she said in the press release.
Casimir said band officials are informing parishioners and surrounding communities who have had children attending school.
The First Nations Health Authority described the discovery of the children as “extremely painful” and said on a website that it “will have a significant impact on the Tk’emlúps community and the communities served by this residential school”.
Agency CEO Richard Jock said the discovery “illustrates the deleterious and lasting effects the dormitory school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities.”
Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University, said each of her freshman law students at Kamloops University spends at least a day at the former residential school speaking with survivors about the conditions they endured.
She said she didn’t hear any survivors talk about an unmarked grave site, “but they all talk about the children who didn’t make it.”
Australia also apologized for its so-called stolen generations – thousands of Aboriginal people who were forcibly taken from their families as children under a policy of assimilation that lasted from 1910 to 1970.
Canada offered those who were taken away from their families compensation for the years they attended residential schools. The offer was part of a dispute settlement.