The discovery of mass graves of children on the grounds of a former school in Canada has shocked the entire world bringing to the fore the history of unspeakable sufferings of its indigenous people. After the discovery of the remains of as many as 215 students at an Indian Residential School run by the Catholic Church in Kamloops city of British Columbia province in Canada, the United Nations human rights experts have called on both the government and the Vatican to investigate the deaths of the children while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sought the Catholic Church to own up its role and Pope Francis has said he is pained and saddened to learn about it but he stopped short of apologizing for it.
How were mass graves unearthed at Kamloops?
The search began after the long rumors of unmarked graves at schools in Canada operated by the Catholic Church between around 1883 and 1996. A commission set up in 2008 came to the conclusion after six years of its investigation that no less than 4,100 students had died in the schools due to neglect, abuse, disease, or accident. In most of the cases, the families were told that their children had run away or vanished, even when the schools acknowledged the deaths they generally refused to return their bodies.
Many believe the number of missing children could be well above 10,000. Thus, the search was launched in the early 2000s deploying the ground-penetrating radar. While earlier undocumented graves of smaller scales were found during construction or other work around the other former schools, this is the first time a massive burial site has been found. There are fears that further scanning can lead to the discovery of more remains.
Indigenous children were forced to attend schools
After setting aside land for Indigenous people through settlements – many controversial ones – the exploitation took a new turn in many parts of Canada around 1883 with the government beginning to force these people to send their children to residential schools to assimilate them into Western culture. Most of these schools were run by Churches where the children wouldn’t be allowed to speak Indigenous languages or practise their cultures. Those who resisted met with violence.
In those days, Kamloops was one of the largest residential schools in Canada with maximum 500 students at a time. The school was run by the Catholic Church till 1969 before the government took over the school system. During its investigation, the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found evidence of decades of neglect and maltreatment at Kamloops.
‘Residential schools were programme of cultural genocide’
In its report submitted in 2015 after hearing 6,750 witnesses, the Commission concluded that the Indigenous residential schools ran a programme of cultural genocide in Canada. Many formers students testified before the panel that there were instances of priests at the schools getting the Indigenous students pregnant and getting the babies killed after their birth. The report says that many students died from disease, fires, accidents, or trying to run away from the schools. Mass deaths occurred when infectious diseases assailed them.
According to media reports, around 150,000 Indigenous children passed through these residential schools during 113 years of their existence. After the discovery of mass graves at the site of a defunct boarding school in Kamloops, apprehensions are rife that there could be other unmarked burial sites across the country that are yet to be unearthed.
It’s time to atone for the history of exploitation
After becoming the Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, Justin Trudeau launched 94 calls to action to remember the missing and dead Indigenous students, promising to improve the lives of Indigenous people. But while the government still has a lot to do, the shocking discovery in Kamloops has underscored the need to effect a reconciliation, end discrimination and uplift the lives of Indigenous people. The government must find a way to make up for its shady past of ill-treatment of Indigenous people.