Canada faces reckoning after remains of indigenous students found

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at one of several boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples has once again  compelled the nation to confront its painful past.

The grim find at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in western British Columbia province offered a stark reminder of the widespread discrimination experienced by the country’s indigenous people — and the particular tragedy of the schools.

In 2015, a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) report said Canada’s assimilation policy pursued until the latter half of the 20th century — including atrocities at the schools — amounted to “cultural genocide.”

That led to a renewed push to atone for Canada’s past behavior, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made reconciliation with the country’s 600 tribes a priority for his government, but not everyone is convinced progress is imminent.

“For many First Nations, Metis or Inuit communities in Canada, several generations of their families attended the schools and the trauma affiliated with (them) is still very present,” Tricia Logan, head of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, told AFP.

“It’s hard to say if Canada is willing or able to face the truth,” Logan said, noting that some people still “deny that what happened at the schools was negligent or abusive.”

About 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youngsters in total were enrolled in these schools. At least 4,100 died, according to the TRC report.

“We all have a role to play in dismantling systemic inequalities and discrimination — it starts with acknowledging the truth about these past wrongs,” Trudeau said Tuesday.

– ‘Devastating’ –

In 2008, the government in Ottawa issued a formal apology as part of a Can$1.9 billion (US$1.5 billion) settlement with former students at the residential schools, which were run by the government and the Catholic church.

Then in 2015, the TRC report called for major changes to school curricula, among its 94 recommendations, to highlight the history and lingering impacts of the residential schools program.

Logan said the public response to that report was mostly “empathetic and supportive,” but some remarks were also “very racist or harmful.”

Few spoke out about their experiences at the 139 schools until the last one closed in Saskatchewan province in 1996.

The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc tribe said last week it had used ground-penetrating radar to confirm the remains of the 215 students who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School — far more than the 50 deaths officially on record.

It was the largest of Canada’s boarding schools for indigenous youth, with up to 500 students attending at any one time. 

Attendance was compulsory, and generations of children were separated from their families, Logan said. After decades under church administration, the government took it over, finally closing its doors in 1978. 

The discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops has for many former students been “devastating,” Logan said.

“I do not think the news came as a surprise to survivors and their families, but learning new truths about the schools compounds existing trauma that (they) carry all the time,” she explained.

It also “reminds survivors about their time and the considerable losses they experienced at the schools,” she said.

– Abuse, disease, malnutrition –

Logan, who is credited with decades of research on the residential schools, said they had “notoriously high rates of physical and sexual abuse, disease, malnutrition and neglect that all contributed to high death rates.”

Underfunded and under-equipped, they became breeding grounds for tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia.

Former students told of being served scraps and culturally unsuitable foods, brutal punishments meted out by teachers, rapes and sexual violence, and other abuses.

They were also prohibited from speaking their native languages or practicing their customs, effectively “killing the Indian in them,” according to the TRC report.

Today, those experiences are blamed for a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as high suicide rates, in Canada’s indigenous communities.

The TRC noted that parents’ requests to have their sons or daughters’ remains returned home were rejected at the time by the government as too costly. 

Now, most of the school cemeteries where they are interred have been abandoned.

– ‘Much more to do’ –

After the Kamloops revelation, more excavations of school burial sites are now being planned across Canada. Trudeau has promised “concrete actions.”

For Logan, “the work is enormous and there is much more to do.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said the undocumented deaths of students must be exposed for “closure to begin healing.”

“These children deserve the respect and dignity of proper burials… to ensure that their souls are at peace,” the group said in a statement.

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