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A mass grave of hundreds of children has been uncovered at an Indigenous residential school in Canada, shocking the nation.
The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school — one of the institutions that held native children taken from their families across the nation.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a news release that the remains were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
In an earlier release, she called the discovery an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
The Canadian government apologized in Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages; they also lost touch with their parents and customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited that legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of epidemics of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
A report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued five years ago said at least 3,200 children had died amid abuse and neglect, and it said it had reports of at least 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone between 1915 and 1963.
“This really resurfaces the issue of residential schools and the wounds from this legacy of genocide towards Indigenous people,” Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Colombia, said Friday.
The remains were detected but not yet exhumed. Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner in British Columbia, said it was advised by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc on Thursday about the discovery of a burial site located adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We are early in the process of gathering information and will continue to work collaboratively with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and others as this sensitive work progresses,” Lapointe said
“We recognize the tragic, heartbreaking devastation that the Canadian residential school system has inflicted upon so many, and our thoughts are with all of those who are in mourning today.”
Aa radar specialist is completing a survey of the ground and anticipate having a full report ready by mid-June. Casimir said it will be shared publicly but not until it has been disclosed to its membership and other local First Nations chiefs.
She said they will also be looking into what it can do to repatriate the remains and honor the children and the families impacted.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” to learn of the discovery, calling it a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” that highlights the violence and consequences of the residential school system.
Canadian politician, New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh, stated that if this had occurred in any other country that Canada would demand answers, CNN reports.
"The federal government has to play a role in making sure that these families know what happened, these families know the truth, that these families can have closure and Canada can confront the reality of this genocide," Singh stated.
He vowed to fight for justice and for answers.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated at a Monday press conference that Canada will not “hide” from this tragedy, which he said is not “an isolated incident.”
We have to acknowledge the truth,” he said, according to CNN. “Residential schools were a reality, a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it."
The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
Casimir said it’s believed the deaths are undocumented, although a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” Casimir said in the initial release issued late Thursday.
The leadership of the Tk’emlups community “acknowledges their responsibility to caretake for these lost children,” Casimir said.
Access to the latest technology allows for a true accounting of the missing children and will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost, she said in the release.
Casimir said band officials are informing community members and surrounding communities that had children who attended the school.
The First Nations Health Authority called the discovery of the remains “extremely painful” and said in a website posting that it “will have a significant impact on the Tk’emlúps community and in the communities served by this residential school.”
The authority’s CEO, Richard Jock, said the discovery “illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities,.”
Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University, said each of her first-year law students at the Kamloops university spends at least one day at the former residential school speaking with survivors about conditions they had endured.
She said she did not hear survivors talk about an unmarked grave area, “but they all talk about the kids who didn’t make it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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