BY RHIANNA LACHHMAN
News About the Bodies Found in Kamloops:
On May 28th 2021, 215 unmarked graves of indigenous children were recovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, Canada. Kamloops is the home of the largest residential school in Canada. These bodies were found by researchers using ground penetrative technology. This discovery has understandably sparked outrage amongst the Indigenous community and many Canadians, because these bodies are representative of the cultural genocide that Indigenous peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government. What exactly are residential schools and why were they implemented in the first place?
Before this piece continues, this is a deeply unfortunate situation, and here at The Diversity Story we must say that our heart goes out to the Indigenous community. We recognize the immense amount of oppression this community has had to endure for centuries now. We realize that this discovery is a stern reminder to the rest of the world that this community is still feeling the effects of abusive systems like residential schools today. This is a warning to readers, as this article will go on to talk about sensitive topics like abuse and assault faced at residential schools. If these are triggering subjects for you then it is advised you do not further continue reading.
History and Effect of Residential Schools:
The Indian residential school system was a system of boarding schools created in the 1870’s. These schools were then deemed mandatory in 1920 under the Indian Act. “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and to assimilate the Indian people in all respects” said Sir John A. Macdonald, a former Prime Minister of Canada, on May 2, 1887. The Canadian government had created this free network of boarding schools for Indigenous people, which were almost entirely run by the Catholic church. They were created with the goal of wiping out the Indigenous culture and assimilating them into Catholicism and Christianity.
Indigenous kids were taken around the age of six from their own families to be taught Christianity; many of which never returned home. There were over 150 schools that were once open in Canada. An estimated 150,000 Indigenous youth, including Metis and Inuit children, had been required to attend these government funded residential schools for over a century. They were not only in terrible conditions, but these schools treated their own students in unforgivable ways.
At residential schools, children were:
Forbidden from speaking their native tongue and punished if done so
Required to adopt the religious domination of the school
Not fed a nutritious diet
Were segregated based on gender
Withheld medical attention
The schools were not only overcrowded and underfunded, but staff members commonly abused students as penalization. Punishments at these schools include physical/sexual abuse, starvation, shaming and scolding the hands of children. This inhumane treatment created the mental and physical trauma that many Indigenous residential school survivors face today. Visits from family members were rare. In fact, in a CTV news report, Emma Baker, a residential school survivor, claims these schools “were like prison and they were not allowed to go anywhere.”
The pain caused by residential schools is not only felt by its survivors and victims, but by generations of Indigenous families. As a result of the forced assimilation, these Indigenous children have lost touch with their own culture. Limited family visitation and gender segregation also caused many familial bonds to become severed. In a CBC news documentary, Stolen Children, Lorena Fontaine, the daughter of residential school survivor, describes her cultural struggle by stating, “I grew up not knowing my language, and in fact, I kind of felt a bit ashamed about our language and our identity because it seemed like (my family) was ashamed too in some way because they didn’t want to talk about it, and they didn’t want to share with us, about who we were.” Mike Loft, the son of a residential school survivor, details how the abuse his father faced at residential schools created a generational cycle of rather tough treatment. Loft goes on to explain that “there was a lot of fear, the terror that they put in him, he managed to bring that with him and it went into our family, and I learned terror and fear as well as a child. I put fear in my sons, too.”
Many Indigenous people have an increased rate of abuse, mental illness and suicide as a result of the brutal treatment faced for years from forced assimilation. It is clear that the torment that residential schools have enforced among Canada’s Indigenous communities is still being healed from today.
Canada has met this news with shock. Canada’s Prime minister Justin Trudeau said the news broke his heart and went on to swear to deliver justice to our Indigenous communities. During a press conference, Trudeau stated, “We promised concrete action, and that’s how we’ll support survivors, families, and Indigenous peoples.” Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous relations, said Canadians are now “confronted with the truth.” More and more Canadian citizens are beginning to realize the devastating faults of our country, such as its cruel treatment of Indigenous peoples. While the Catholic church has apologized for residential schools in the past, Pope Francis has not given a direct apology for the prominent role that the Catholic church played in the residential school system.
Memorials have been held to honour the lost lives of those 215 Indigenous children. 215 pairs of shoes have been placed in front of former residential schools, to symbolize all of those children. On July 1st, 2021 the Every Child Matters walk was held in Toronto to represent the necessity of finding the remains of every lost Indigenous child and bringing closure to their families.
Many Indigenous charities are working towards serving justice and finding the remains of residential school victims all over the country. Organizations such as Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada have stated that nearly $34 Million was designated in 2019 to support the creation of a register of residential school student deaths and to continue memorializing these students in Canada.
While nothing can bring back all the lost lives or take back all those centuries of trauma, hopefully, closure can one day be served to the families of residential school victims and more lost bodies will be recovered. No living, breathing human being deserved to be treated this way. Though we can not undo the damage that has already been done, us Canadians must educate ourselves to prevent history from repeating its mistakes. We must do this to help our Indigenous communities heal and prosper.
Canadian- Indigenous Charities: