By Chad Ingram
Last week another gruesome chapter in the dark saga of Canada’s residential school system was unearthed with the discovery of the bodies of 215 children in unmarked graves on the property of a former school in Kamloops, B.C.
It’s an uncomfortable subject for many Canadians. After all, we enjoy an international reputation as painfully polite – the nice ones, the peacekeepers, measured and moderate. But there is a nightmarish elephant lurking in the room, a colonial legacy so horrific it’s difficult to think about; a 120-year-long arrangement between the Canadian government, the Catholic church and other churches that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children.
Depending on your age, you may have learned a little or maybe nothing about residential schools when you were in school. Textbooks presented a whitewashed version of history, describing the residential school system as the government’s attempt at “cultural assimilation,” which in itself is terrible enough, but if we’re honest, we know residential schools were about more than that. Disease, starvation, fires, abuse, accounts of murder. Other children drown or froze to death trying to escape. The legacy of residential schools is not just killing Indigenous culture; it’s killing Indigenous children.
Estimates of the residential schools’ death toll continue to climb over time. Of the approximately 150,000 children who passed through the system, a few years ago, it was believed some 3,200 had died. The number of deaths confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission now surpasses 4,100, and there are now estimates that as many as 6,000 children died. No one really knows, nor are we likely ever to. The bodies discovered in Kamloops last week are believed to have been previously undocumented. It’s possible there are more bodies on the property, and it’s possible there are more secret graveyards in other locations across the country.
Picture it, I mean, really picture it. Nuns, priests, headmasters, whoever else, placing the bodies of children into the earth, covered like a dirty secret. Children who’d been ripped away from their families, almost certainly deprived of proper nutrition, almost certainly subject to further emotional, physical or sexual abuse, placed into unmarked graves, their disappearances left to be a mystery for all time. Some survivors have spoken of children being forced to bury other children.
This is the thing we all need to deal with, to collectively come to terms with. We can wear orange shirts and we can lower flags, prime ministers can apologize in the House of Commons and MPs can pass motions, but meaningful change can only come to fruition when we all come to accept and understand the immense, horrendous scope of the truth when it comes to Canada’s residential schools.
As Chief Kelly LaRocca of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation put it, last week’s discovery “is a stark reminder that genocide formed an integral part of the settlement of Canada. The sooner people recognize this fact, the sooner we will be able to begin to healing as a nation.”
For immediate assistance for those who may need it, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society crisis line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.