Ottawa, Ontario: For decades, most Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. A large number never returned home, their families given only vague explanations, or none at all.
Now an Indigenous community in British Columbia says it has found evidence of what happened to some of its missing children: a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former residential school.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said on Friday that ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s.
“It’s a harsh reality and it’s our truth, it’s our history,” Casimir said at a news conference. “And it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove. To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history.”
The remains, which Casimir described as “many, many years old - decades,” included those of children as young as 3.
Starting in the 19th century, Canada was home to a system of residential schools, mostly operated by churches, that Indigenous children were forced to attend. The system went into decline during the 1970s, with the last school closing in 1996.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of a government apology and settlement over the schools, concluded that at least 4,100 students died while attending the schools, many from mistreatment or neglect, others from disease or accident.
While there have long been rumours of unmarked graves at schools, if the findings are confirmed, it will be the first time a major burial site has been discovered.
Kamloops, once the largest residential school in Canada, with about 500 pupils at its peak, was operated by the Catholic Church until 1969, when the federal government took over.
Unlike other religious groups that operated the residential schools, the Catholic Church has refused to formally apologise for abuses that occurred within them. In 2018, Pope Francis rejected a direct appeal for an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that residential schools were a program of “cultural genocide.” The use of Indigenous languages was banned at the schools, sometimes through the use of violence, as were Indigenous cultural practices.