In the last weeks of May, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Buried in unmarked graves, the bodies of children as young as three were discovered by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
On June 1st, in a video statement, Jennifier Bone, Chief of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba, announced that 104 ‘potential graves’ have been identified at the Brandon Indian Residential School by the The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
While horrifying, this is not a surprise. Generations of Indigenous children were forcefully separated from their families and their ancestral lands under the belief that Indigenous parents were not fit to raise their own children and guide them to become “proper” ‘Canadians’, a belief shared by the federal government and Christian churches. It is estimated that over 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools with an estimated 6,000 deaths recorded, although the number is thought to be much higher due to incomplete records.
These discoveries stand as a stark reminder to non-Indigenous people that the country known as ‘Canada’ is not only built upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples, but that this extends to Indigenous children in these residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission described residential schools as a case of ‘cultural genocide’, a term defined in the final report as the “destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group”. This however fails to expand on the fact that not only was the residential school system an act of cultural genocide, it was also very much a genocide in and of itself; as proved by the thousands upon thousands of recorded deaths, including the recent discoveries. Journalist Jesse Staniforth argued this in the Toronto Star in 2015 when he stated “The word ‘cultural’ seems to suggest that the [residential school] system was designed to destroy cultures but not people, a fact far from the reality of Residential Schools.”
The last residential school closed in 1996, only 25 years ago. To this day, Indigenous peoples bear trauma and intergenerational trauma from a system created by the federal government to “take the indian out of the child” as quoted by Sir John A. Macdonald.
Since then, many survivors of such schools have spoken out about the countless physical, mental and sexual abuses they endured at the hands of the school administrations— abuses that the federal government helped to implement and oversee.
The closing of residential schools however should not be mistaken for the end of state-backed violence against Indigenous peoples. The legacy of these schools carry on today and is reflected in the “significant educational, income, and health disparities” between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples as stated in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5.
In 2016, federally employed investigators tracked thousands of people accused of physical and sexual abuse at the residential schools. However, these criminals were not tracked for the purpose of prosecuting them, only to see if they would be willing to take part in hearings that would determine compensation for survivors.
The system that produced residential schools—the federal government— and the churches, continue to evade justice to this day. There is no accountability.
Throughout all this, it is important to remember that, contrary to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes to be ‘dark and shameful chapters’ of history, this country is built on stolen land and actively functions through the disenfranchisement of the original caretakers of this land, an endeavour which has lasting repercussions to this day. This is a reality that we need to confront so that we can work towards taking every possible opportunity to counter the remaining influences of colonialism.
Thus the onus falls on non-Indigenous people to educate ourselves through books, media and conversations produced by Indigenous artists and/or those that work to actively centre Indigenous voices and perspectives.
Hotlines for Indigenous Peoples:
Indian Residential School Survivors Society is here for survivors and their families, to support them at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24/7 crisis line.
1-855-242-3310 Inuktitut, Cree, Ojibway, English, French
Staff trained in ASIST and have counselling backgrounds specializing in various areas such as addictions, sexual abuse, family violence, mental health, suicide, etc.
Edited by Olivia Shan
Penni Tenzin is in her second year at McGill University, pursuing a joint honours in International Development and Political Science with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her first year serving as a staff writer for the Catalyst and she is beyond excited!