KAMLOOPS, British Columbia – The remains of 215 children, some of whom were as young as 3, were found buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school – one of the institutions that housed the children of families across the country.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a press release that the remains were confirmed last weekend using ground-penetrating radar.
More bodies could be found as there are more areas to search on the school grounds, Casimir said on Friday.
In an earlier statement, she called the discovery an “unthinkable loss discussed but never documented at Kamloops Indian Residential School.” It was once the site of Canada’s largest residential school.
From the 19th century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children had to attend publicly funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. Many have been beaten and verbally assaulted, and up to 6,000 are believed to have died.
The Canadian government apologized to Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in schools was rampant. Many students remember being beaten for speaking their mother tongue; they have also lost contact with their parents and their customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited this legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug abuse on reserves.
A report released more than five years ago by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission said at least 3,200 children had died from abuse and neglect, and it said it had reported at least 51 deaths to the only school in Kamloops between 1915 and 1963.
“It really brings up the issue of residential schools and the wounds of this legacy of genocide against indigenous peoples,” said Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Columbia on Friday.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” to learn of the discovery, calling it a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” that highlights the violence and consequences of the residential school system.
The Kamloops School operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over the operations of the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
Casimir said the deaths were believed to be undocumented, although an archivist from the local museum is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students enrolled and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss is affecting First Nations communities in British Columbia and beyond,” said Casimir in the initial press release released Thursday evening.
Leaders of the Tk’emlups community “recognize their responsibility to care for these lost children,” Casimir said.
Access to the latest technology allows for true accounting of missing children and, hopefully, will bring some peace and closure to those lost lives, she said in the statement.
Casimir said gang officials were informing community members and surrounding communities who had children who attended school.
The First Nations Health Authority called the discovery of the children’s remains “extremely painful” and said in a website that it “will have a significant impact on the community of Tk’emlúps and the communities served by this residential school.”
Authority CEO Richard Jock said the discovery “illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential 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 the University of Kamloops spends at least a day at the former residential school talking with survivors about the conditions they endured.
She said she hadn’t heard from the survivors about an anonymous burial area, “but they all talk about the children who didn’t.”
Australia has also apologized for its so-called stolen generations – thousands of Aborigines forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.
Canada offered those who were taken from their families compensation for the years they attended residential schools. The offer was part of a legal settlement.