May 29, 2021
By Antonia Noori Farzan
The discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in British Columbia prompted outpourings of grief and questions as efforts to identify the students began.
Vigils and prayer ceremonies honoring the Kamloops Indian Residential School students took place across British Columbia after the discovery was announced last week, and an impromptu memorial sprung up in Vancouver as mourners laid out a pair of empty children’s shoes for each of the dead. Meanwhile, Canada’s House of Commons fast-tracked a bill that would create a new national holiday commemorating children who died while in residential schools.
The discovery has also prompted renewed scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church, which operated the Kamloops school from 1890 to 1969.
Canadian authorities removed nearly 150,000 Indigenous children from their families between 1883 and 1996 and sent them to residential schools, where Indigenous languages and traditions were strictly banned and students were often subjected to neglect and abuse. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined in 2015 that their use constituted “cultural genocide.”
It’s unclear what led to the deaths of the 215 children, some as young as 3, whose bodies were found at the former Kamloops residential school. Accidents, fires and contagious illness at residential schools all contributed to a high death toll, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has estimated at more than 4,000 children.
The Canadian government has formally apologized and paid billions of dollars in compensation to the survivors of residential schools. The Catholic Church has yet to issue an apology of its own. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a personal appeal to Pope Francis in 2018, but the request was rejected.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told CTV News on Friday that it was time for the church to “really accept full responsibility for reparations to families.”
While the Vatican hasn’t commented on the discovery of the mass grave, local church leaders have expressed sadness about the tragedy that it represents.
“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring to light every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said in a statement. “The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the tribal nation that found the mass grave, has said more bodies may be buried on the school grounds, which have not yet been fully searched. Some experts believe that similar unmarked graves may exist at other former residential schools across Canada, since record-keeping at the schools tended to be spotty.
Finding burial grounds can be difficult because many of the former residential schools have been demolished.
Indigenous leaders across British Columbia have been discussing what to do with the children’s remains, Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief, told CTV News. He said the next step could be to try to use forensic techniques to identify the students, then return their remains to their home communities.
Archivists are searching the records of the Catholic order that operated the school to see if they can find any relevant burial records. Lisa Lapointe, the chief coroner for British Columbia, said her office is “early in the process of gathering information” but intends to “work collaboratively with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and others as this sensitive work progresses.”