La Croix International [France]
August 18, 2021
By Celeste Liddle, Australia
If similar imaging was to be undertaken in Australia as to what has been used in the residential schools in Canada, there is a possibility similar horrors would be uncovered
Across the Pacific Ocean, in Canada or ‘Turtle Island’ as it is also known by many of its Indigenous inhabitants, a horror has been unfolding.
It started at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Colombia where, via the use of ground penetrating radar technology, the remains of at least 215 Native Canadian children were found buried in mass unmarked gravesites.
This school ran for 85 years, was part of compulsory government programs to forcibly assimilate these children, and was administered by the Catholic Church.
Not long after this first discovery, the bodies of another 751 children were found using the same technology at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, this time in Saskatchewan.
There was an outpouring of grief from all the families and communities whose children, over a century, had never made it home and who were never granted the dignity of recognition in death and a proper burial. These children were simply disposed of like rubbish.
Yet as well as grief, there was also anger and calls for action.
If nearly 1000 Indigenous children could be found disposed of in the grounds of just two of these residential schools, just how many other children would be found in the grounds of the other 130 or so residential schools that operated across the country for such a long time?
How did these children die?
Institutional abuse within these schools which were run by a variety of Christian denominations has, to an extent, been acknowledged politically, with President Trudeau making an official apology to the survivors of these systems in 2017.
However, mass gravesites suggest that regardless of any apologies, the full extent of the horrors endured by First Nations children at the hands of the state are still being uncovered.
Given the sheer number of the schools and the length of the forcible removals, it will be a while before all is known and proper reparations are made.
Sound familiar? That’s because unfortunately for Indigenous populations, acts of genocide like this (and Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations is calling it genocide) by colonial powers tend to be replicated globally.
A commitment to truth-telling and acknowledgement
In Australia, we’re still reckoning with our own past policies which forcibly removed, at its height, about a third of Aboriginal children from their families and communities to assimilate them.
The idea being that their ‘full blood’ family members were dying out so for those who had a non-Indigenous parent, ensuring that their whiteness was developed so people could then be positive inclusions in mainstream Australian society was key.
Recently, acknowledgement here has taken the form of a promise of compensation by the federal government for the victims of these policies in the ACT, NT and Jervis Bay Territory.
Approximately 3600 survivors in these three regions may be eligible for compensation payments of $75000.
This move has been hailed as a welcome and overdue measure, whilst Indigenous community members also note that many Stolen Generations kids have long passed away and the scheme does not allow for descendants to claim despite its alleged commitment to healing intergenerational trauma.
My own grandmother was a victim of these practices. She spoke about her experiences of being taken away to Aboriginal children’s missions and then educated in domestic skills so she could be an (unpaid) servant in the 1994 exhibition Between Two Worlds.
Many times, as I have listened to the audio recording of my nanna’s experiences at those children’s missions, I’ve wondered if there is even more to her story, and therefore the stories of other Aboriginal children who ended up in these missions and homes across this country.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that if similar imaging was to be undertaken here in Australia as to what has been used in the residential schools in Canada, there is a possibility similar horrors would be uncovered.
Australia has form when it comes to the hiding of the bodies of Aboriginal people who have died in institutions.
One prominent example is at the former prison island Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) in WA.
Ground Penetrating Radar has been used to map the location of the remains of the up to 370 Aboriginal men who perished in the prison there after bones were found in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, under the old camping ground.
The camping ground itself stayed open until 2007 despite traditional owner calls over decades for proper acknowledgement of the area and for the resting place of these men to be respected.
Another example is the ‘lock hospitals’ many Aboriginal men, women and children were taken to. Dorre and Bernier Islands, again in WA, provide some recently discussed examples.
Aboriginal people were rounded up by police who diagnosed them as having suspected ‘venereal diseases’, sent to these islands then medically experimented on. Many never returned and the location of their graves are unknown.
Given this history, it’s really not too much of a stretch to believe that like in Canada, the old institutions so many Stolen Aboriginal children were taken to could also be home to unacknowledged remains.
We know from the stories of these institutions, along with the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, that many of these places were uncaring and brutal.
We also know that not all stolen children made their way home. So where have they gone? Is there capacity, via a commitment to truth-telling and acknowledgement, to investigate these potential horrors more fully?
The official Apology may have happened in 2008 but as a descendant of a Stolen Generations woman, I believe the full story here is yet to be told.
As horrific as the unfolding situation in Canada has been, I hope that it leads to acknowledgement and healing for First Nations communities there. And I hope that Australia will also eventually be brave enough to face likely similar atrocities here.
Celeste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She is the current Greens candidate for the seat of Cooper in the upcoming Federal elections.