The news was announced last week by Rosan Casimir, leader of the Tk’emlups to the Secwepemc tribe in the town of Kamloops, in the mountains of western Canada. The remains were found by a special radar that could see the bottom a few meters deep. The youngest victim was said to be 3 years old.
Casimir said the investigation would continue in June. Then it must become clear whether the numbers are correct, and whether these are indeed unknown deaths.
Dozens of children were already known to have died in Kamloops Indian Residential School in the last century. In front of the building, which operated between 1890 and 1977 and housed about five hundred children, on top, there is a monument bearing 65 names of the deceased students. But in addition to that, there were dozens of “missing” people, whom the school administration always told them had escaped.
“It is a cruel reality, but it is our truth and our history,” Kazimir told a news conference. “And this is something we have always had to fight to prove it.”
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has so far documented the deaths of 4,100 children in Canadian boarding schools. However, there were always rumors of anonymous mass graves. One of them appears to have now been found, in a field near a bend in the river, where the tribe set up a garden and constructed a playground for powwows, an annual spiritual dance party.
The tribe announced a memorial service for the next three evenings with holy fire and drum beating. Many flowers have been placed at the memorial in recent days.
In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of Canada apologized for the boarding school system, in which Aboriginal children suffering from neglect, malnutrition and abuse were forced into Western classes (as happened in the United States and Australia, for example). They were not allowed to speak their own language and had to forget their religion and customs. In the 2015 report, the Reconciliation Committee spoke of a “cultural genocide”.
The system, begun in 1883, was expressly intended to solve the “Native American problem”. “If we want to do something about the Indian, we have to attend it very early,” the consultant wrote in a government report. Schools have been compulsory since 1920. In total, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children are enrolled in school. The last one closed in 1997.
Since a court ruling in 2007, 28,000 former students have received a total of 3.2 billion Canadian dollars (about 2.2 billion euros) in compensation – an average of 80,000 euros per person.
The Catholic Church, a partner in colonial Christianity for centuries, has not apologized for the practices, unlike other Christian partners. Nevertheless, Archbishop of Vancouver Archdiocese Michael Miller said in a statement that “the pain caused by this news is a reminder that every tragic situation that occurred in boarding schools run by the Church must be exposed.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that the news “broke his heart”. He described it as “a reminder of that shameful black chapter in our national history.”
The closest relatives are now demanding more actions and less words. The Reconciliation Committee’s 2015 report calls for structural funding for the centers to alleviate the physical, mental and spiritual pain caused by boarding schools.