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Crimes of the Church: Canada’s residential schools where countless indigenous children suffered, died and were forgotten

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.

On June 30, another mass grave was reported near a former residential school in Canada. This is the third such reporting in the last few weeks. The Lower Kootenay Band, a member band of the Ktunaxa Nation, said that remains of 182 people were found in mass graves close to former St. Eugene’s Mission School in Cranbrook. The graves were spotted with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

The residential school were funded by Canadian govt and managed by Church

The Lower Kootenay Band said, “Some of the findings had the human remains buried in shallow graves only three to four feet deep.” They further added that many Lower Kootenay Band members were forced to attend the St. Eugene’s Mission School. Around 100 band members attended the school.

As per the statement issued, the search for the burial sites begun last year after an unknown and unmarked grave was found during remedial work around a cemetery located adjacent to the former school. Initial investigations revealed 182 burial sites. The statement mentioned that the graves were shallow, approx a metre deep, located within the cemetery grounds.

The Aq’am community started to identify if the graves belonged to the children who were forced to attend the school. The community leadership would like to stress that although these findings are tragic, they are still undergoing analysis and the history of this area is a complex one,” the statement read.

Canadian PM Trudeau said, “Today’s finding adds to the growing number of unmarked burial sites discovered near residential schools across Canada. Words always seem to fall short at moments like this. But to the Ktunaxa Nation and Indigenous peoples across the country, know that we’re here for you.”

Around 1000 graves located earlier

Notably, two mass graves had been found earlier, one with 215 graves in Kamloops was found on May 27, 2021, and 751 graves in Saskatchewan were found just a week ago, on June 24. Rosanne Casimir, Chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 had said, “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” while informing the press about the 215 graves found in Kamloops.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau had 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.”

While talking about the discovery of graves in Saskatchewan, Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme said, “This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves.” Though teams were unable to confirm if there were more graves at the site, finding 751 of them at a single site had shocked the whole nation. He said the penetrating radar work has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate.

Canadian PM Justin had said after the discovery of unmarked graves in Saskatchewan, “The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”

‘You cannot fully prepare for this’

Chief Jason Louie of Lower Kootenay Band said, “You can never fully prepare for something like this.” He added that the situation is very difficult. “It was very impactful when we got the news of the 215 souls that were located in Kamloops. And now it’s very, very personal,” he said. As of now, the investigation is at the early stages, and more information will be provided in time.

The Aq’am cemetery was reportedly established by the settlers in 1865. It was used to bury the local residents who died at St. Eugene Hospital after it opened in 1874. In the late 1800s, the community began to bury its members in the cemetery. The graves were traditionally marked with wooden crosses that deteriorate over time resulting in an unmarked grave.

The statement read, “These factors, among others, make it extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene Residential School.”

The church must be held accountable

Chief Louie urged that the Catholic Church must be held legally accountable for operating the institution. He said, “We were robbed of future elders. Those children, if they had not passed away, could have been elders and teachers in our communities, the keepers of knowledge. It’s devastating.”

Bob Chamberlin, former vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said, “This is not something that you casually set aside and carry on with your days. It’s something that’s heavy on the hearts of First Nations people and stays in the mind as we go through our days. There are many people that are going to be struggling to a great degree.”

A brief history of Canada’s residential school’s for indigenous children

Between 1874 and 1996, the Indian Residential School system was established by the Canadian government and Churches. Though funded by the government, the schools were administrated by Churches. 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. During that period, there were over 130 such schools in Canada

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 only on Christmas and Easter.

The aim of these residential schools was to “clean” out the native culture, language and heritage of the children. Their main objective was to make the children denounce their ways of life and make them more ‘suitable’ for a white, Christian society. This objective was achieved by forcibly keeping the children away from their families, mental, physical and emotional torture and a complete ban on native language and lifestyle within the school premises. The children were often given minimal education and were forced to do hard agricultural labour.

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.

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 sites 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.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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