On May 27, Canada was shaken out of its coronavirus haze by a press release from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops Indian Band) stating that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school, operated by the Catholic Church in Kamloops, British Columbia, housed up to 500 students at a time. This discovery came through the use of ground-penetrating radar.
Residential schools are a very ugly black mark on Canada’s history, and it seems like an appropriate time to talk a bit about that.
The history of residential schools
Between 1831 and 1996, the Canadian government’s Indian Affairs ministry (the exact name has changed a few times over the years) operated a system of residential schools for Aboriginal children. These children were taken from their parents with the goal of assimilation into white Canadian society, along with conversion to Christianity. Individual schools were run by the Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created in 2008 to address the harms and injustices related to the residential school system. The commission interviewed over 6000 witnesses and wrapped up its work with the release of its findings in 2015. Some of the findings in its massive report were:
- Many parents were threatened with being sent to jail if they refused to send their children to residential schools. Breaking the parent-child bond was intentional, not an accidental byproduct.
- When students arrived at residential schools, their own clothes were taken away, their long hair and traditional braids cut off, and they were often assigned new, English-language names.
- Only English (or in some cases French) was spoken, and children were often punished if they tried to speak their native language. Government policy was to “rigorously exclude the use of Indian dialects.” This has resulted in many endangered languages.
- Discipline was severe, including beatings and rubbing students’ faces in human excrement.
- Sexual abuse occurred and was covered up.
- Some students ran away and either died or disappeared.
- In the 1960s, the “Sixties Scoop” saw a significant increase in apprehensions of Aboriginal children by social services, which corresponded to the beginning of a decline in the number of residential schools.
The Commission identified 3200 deaths related to residential schools, although the actual number was likely higher. The mortality rate for children at residential schools was higher than average for children that age. Record-keeping by the schools was very shoddy and often didn’t include the cause of death. The 2015 report indicated that the Commission suspected that there were unidentified burial sites that were yet to be found, just like the one that’s just been discovered in Kamloops.
The words of survivors
The Legacy of Hope website has video interviews with survivors providing oral testimonies of their experiences. On the Truth and Reconciliation Commission site, the Survivors Speak report contains statements from survivors on various aspects of residential school life, from physical abuse if they spoke the only language they knew to verbal and sexual abuse.
The Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society has called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system, including the Kamloops school. The Catholic Church is the only one of the major players in the residential school system that hasn’t issued an apology; the Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches have previously done so.
Children learn how to parent from their parents. Combine large numbers of people not being parented and having their cultural identity stripped away with the effects of intergenerational trauma and ongoing systemic racism, and it’s a hot mess that Indigenous Peoples are left to deal with. Canada caused this, and our government needs to do more to fix it.
- Dangerfield, D. (2021, June 1). ‘Disgrace’: Indigenous leaders blast Catholic Church for silence on residential schools. Global News.
- Legacy of Hope Foundation
- Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. (2021, May 27). Press release.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada findings
The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.