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Canada: Mass grave of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, discovered at a former Indigenous residential school site

On May 27, Rosanne Casimir, Chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 confirmed that the remains of 215 children were found at the premises of Kamloops Indian Residential School. A ground-penetrating radar system was used in the premises of the now-defunct school.

In the official statement, Casimir said, “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.” He further added that some of the students were as young as three years old when they died. “We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children,” he added.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet that the discovery is a painful reminder of the dark and shameful chapter of Canada’s history. He said, “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart – it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.”

John Horgan, Premier of British Columbia, said in an official statement that he was horrified and heartbroken when he learned about the burial site. He said, “Horrified and heartbroken to learn the burial site of 215 children has been confirmed on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school.”

He added, “Each child has been forever taken from a family and a community that loved them. This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. And it is a stark example of the violence the Canadian residential school system inflicted upon Indigenous peoples and how the consequences of these atrocities continue to this day.”

“I honour Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc as they grapple with this burden from a dark chapter of Canadian history and uphold their commitment to complete this investigation over the coming weeks – bringing to light the full truth of this loss,” said Horgan.

A brief history of Kamloops Indian Residential School

In 1890, the Kamloops Industrial School, now known as the Kamloops Indian Residential School, was established under Roman Catholic administration as a part of the Canadian residential school system. It was established as a part of the government policy of forced absorption of the Indigenous communities that resulted in the oppression of generations of Indigenous children. Between 1874 and 1996, there were over 130 such schools in Canada.

The schools were located on the traditional territory of the Secwépemc people. Hundreds of Secwépemc and other First nations children were forcefully sent to these schools as far away as Penticton, Hope, Mount Currie, Lillooet and outside the province. In the 1950s, the enrolment in these schools peaked at 500.

Reports suggest that the children were forcefully removed from their families to attend these schools. In the 1920s, attending these schools was made mandatory by law for Indigenous children. If refused, the parents would face prison. The students would live in the school premises from September to June and were allowed to meet family members on Christmas and Easter.

In 1969, the federal government took over the administration of the school. By that time, the school had stopped providing any classes. The government operated as a residence for students attending local day schools. In 1978, the residence was closed.

The search for the ‘missing children’

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a large number of indigenous children that attended residential schools never made it back to their home communities. Some children ran away while others died at the schools. These students are now called the “Missing Children”. The Missing Children Project documents and deaths and burial sites of such children who died while attending the residential schools. So far, the project has identified over 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school.

The recently discovered burial site’s work was undertaken by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc language and culture department with the help of ceremonial Knowledge Keepers to ensure that the work was conducted respectfully. The initial work in confirming that there were remains of the children began in the early 2000s. Radar technology helped in confirming the stories.

Casimir said they would continue to use a ground-penetrating radar system to complete the survey at the location where the school premises stand. He said, “Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond. We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended, are duly informed. This is the beginning, but given the nature of this news, we felt it important to share immediately. At this time, we have more questions than answers. We look forward to providing updates as they become available.”

Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, said in a statement that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc advised the BC Coroners Service about the discovery of the burial site, and they are in the process of gathering more information. She said, “We recognize the tragic, heartbreaking devastation that the Canadian residential school system has inflicted upon so many, and our thoughts are with all of those who are in mourning today.”

In a report published in 2015 after a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system, it was termed as “cultural genocide”. The report documented horrific details of abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities suffered by the students who attended the school. As many as 150,000 were known to have attended the school system between the 1840s and 1990s. The recently discovered remains of 215 are believed to be new burial site and not included in the list of over 4,100 students who died at the schools.

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the system.

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