CALGARY, Alberta – For decades, Indigenous children have been taken from their families, sometimes by force, and housed in overcrowded, church-run residential schools, where they have been abused and banned from speaking their language. Thousands have completely disappeared.
Today, a new discovery offers chilling evidence that many missing children may have died in these schools: the remains of 751 people, mostly Indigenous children, have been found at the site of a former school in the province from Saskatchewan, an Indigenous group said Thursday.
The burial site, the largest to date, was discovered just weeks after the remains of 215 children were found in anonymous graves on the grounds of another former school run by a church for indigenous students in Colombia -British.
The findings rocked a nation struggling with generations of widespread and systematic abuse against Indigenous peoples, many of whom are residential school survivors. For decades, they have suggested through their oral histories that thousands of children have disappeared from schools, but they have often been met with skepticism. The revelations of two anonymous burials are another burning reminder of this traumatic time in history.
“It was a crime against humanity, an assault on a First Nations people,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the provincial federation of indigenous groups. “The only crime we committed as children was being born indigenous,” he said.
The burial site also puts new pressure on the current government of Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, which is still supported today by a body of laws that govern the lives of Indigenous peoples dating back to the 19th century. Indigenous leaders say they hope the latest revelations will be a catalyst for their much sought-after autonomy.
“We are tired of being told what to do and how to do it,” said Chief Cadmus Delorme, of the Cowessess First Nation.
The recent unearth of remains in Canada has reverberated around the world, including the United States, where the Home Secretary this week said the country would search federal residential schools for possible burial sites. Native American children. Hundreds of thousands of them have been forcibly removed from their communities to be culturally assimilated into schools for over a century.
It is not known how children died in schools, which were rocked by epidemics a century ago, and where children were victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and violence. Some former school students have described the cremation of the bodies of infants born to impregnated girls by priests and monks.
Both schools were part of a system started in the 19th century that removed Indigenous children from their families.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created in 2008 to investigate residential schools, called the practice “cultural genocide.” Many children never returned home and their families received only vague explanations of their fate, if any. There were approximately 150 residential schools in Canada, and approximately 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the schools between their opening in circa 1883 and their closure in 1996.
The commission estimated that around 4,100 children across the country had disappeared from schools. But a former Indigenous judge who headed the commission, Murray Sinclair, said in an email this month that he now believed the number was “well over 10,000.”
Local indigenous leaders on Thursday demanded an investigation into what they called “genocide” and called on the church and government to turn over all records related to school administration.
Chief Delorme also called on Pope Francis to apologize, saying the Roman Catholic Church must respond to his actions.
“The incredible burden of the past is still with us, and the truth of that past must come out, painful as it is,” Don Bolen, Archbishop of Regina, wrote in a letter Thursday to the Cowessess Group. He apologized and pledged to “do what we can to turn this apology into meaningful action.”
The discovery in Saskatchewan was made by the Cowessess First Nation at Marieval Indian Residential School, approximately 87 miles from the provincial capital, Regina.
Chief Delorme said his Indigenous community, spurred by the discovery in Kamloops and in collaboration with technical teams from Saskatchewan Polytechnic, began sweeping the area using ground penetrating radar on June 2, affecting up to 751 anonymous graves. He said he expected more bodies to be found.
While it is not clear how the discovery of the remains will be investigated, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Saskatchewan said next steps, including the potential involvement of the force, would depend on the wishes of the leaders of the indigenous group.
“Our actions must be respectful of the immense grief that the people of the Cowessess First Nation continue to suffer. We know we have applied racist and discriminatory laws and policies, ”a police spokesperson said in an email.
For Canada 1.7 million indigenous citizens, who make up about 4.9 percent of the population, the discovery of yet another collective burial site is a visceral reminder of centuries of discrimination and abuse, which resulted in intergenerational trauma among residential school survivors and their families. families.
“It is undeniable: all the stories told by our survivors are true,” said Chief Cameron.
Florence Sparvier, 80, an elder from Cowessess First Nation, said she attended two residential schools, including Marieval, the school where the unmarked remains were found.
The remains of what are believed to be Indigenous children have been found at the sites of former residential schools in Canada. Here’s what you need to know:
- Background: Around 1883, Aboriginal children in many parts of Canada were forced to attend residential schools as part of a program of forced assimilation. Most of these schools were run by churches and all prohibited the use of indigenous languages and cultural practices, often through violence. Illnesses, as well as sexual, physical and emotional abuse were widespread. An estimated 150,000 children passed through schools between their opening and closing in 1996.
- Missing children: A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, put in place as part of an apology and government school regulation, found at least 4,100 students died while attending them, much abuse or neglect, others illness or accident. In many cases, families never learned of the fate of their offspring, which is now known as the “missing children”.“
- Discoveries : In May, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies at the Kamloops school – which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969 – after using ground penetrating radar. In June, an Indigenous group said the remains of 751 people, mostly children, were found in anonymous graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan.
- Cultural genocide ‘: In a 2015 report, the commission concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide”. Murray Sinclair, a former judge and senator who headed the commission, recently said he now believed the number of missing children was “well over 10,000”.
- Apologies and next steps: The commission asked for an apology from the Pope for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis stopped by before one, but the Archbishop of Vancouver apologized on behalf of his archdiocese. Canada has officially apologized and offered financial and other support for the research, but Indigenous leaders believe the government still has a long way to go.
“They condemned our people a lot,” she said of the nuns in the schools. “They told us that our people, our parents, our grandparents had no way of being spiritual because we were all pagans.”
Trudeau on Thursday called the findings in Saskatchewan and British Columbia “part of a larger tragedy,” citing the legacy of “systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that indigenous peoples have faced.”
In September 2017, Mr. Trudeau recognized the nation’s past “Humiliation, neglect and abuse” indigenous peoples, and promised in a speech to the United Nations General assembly to improve their lives.
When Mr. Trudeau took office in 2015, he made the 94 recommendations of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission a top priority. But progress has been slow, in part because some of them are outside the control of the federal government.
When the commission tried to look into the issue of missing Indigenous children in 2009, the Conservative government of the day refused its request for money to fund research. Since the discovery of Kamloops in late May, several Canadian governments have offered to pay for the research.
On Tuesday, the federal government announced it would provide just under C $ 4.9 million (about $ 3.9 million) to Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan for grave searches. The provincial government has already committed C $ 2 million ($ 1.6 million).
Like Kamloops, Marieval School, which opened in 1899, has been operated for most of its history by the Roman Catholic Church for the Government of Canada. A marked cemetery still exists on the school grounds, which closed in 1997 and was later demolished.
The commission demanded a papal apology for the role of the church, which ran about 70 percent of schools. (The rest were led by Protestant denominations.) But despite a personal appeal from Mr. Trudeau to the Vatican, Pope Francis has still not taken that step. In contrast, the leadership of the United Church of Canada, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, apologized in 1998 for its role in running the schools.
Since the Kamloops announcement, Chief Cameron said, he has traveled around the province, where agriculture and mining are major industries, in search of former school sites.
“You can see with your ordinary eye the recess from the ground where these bodies are located,” he said in an interview Wednesday night. “These children are setting there, waiting to be found.”
Vjosa Isai in Toronto contributed reporting.