Inside residential schools: How deaths of 4,100 indigenous children mark Canada's dark history of racism

Remains of 215 indigenous children were discovered with the help of ground-penetrating radar during a survey of Kamloops Indian Residential school


                            Inside residential schools: How deaths of 4,100 indigenous children mark Canada's dark history of racism
Kamloops Indian Residential School, circa 1930 (Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked that flags at all federal buildings be flown at half-mast to honor more than 215 children whose remains were discovered found buried at what was once Canada’s largest indigenous residential school. Kamloops Indian Residential School was one of the institutions that held children taken from families across the nation — often snatched forcibly away from their parents — and was set up to assimilate indigenous people.

The discovery was reportedly announced on Thursday, May 27, 2021, by the chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation. The bodies were discovered with the help of ground-penetrating radar during a survey of the school. The school probably carried out a "cultural genocide".

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"To honor the 215 children whose lives were taken at the former Kamloops residential school and all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families, I have asked that the Peace Tower flag and flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast," Trudeau tweeted.



 

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said that some of the 215 children were as young as 3 years old. She described the discovery as "an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School." According to reports, plans are underway to bring in forensics experts to identify and repatriate the remains of the children found buried on the site.

The residential school

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Canada's residential schools were compulsory boarding schools run by the government and religious authorities. The aim was to forcibly assimilate indigenous youth. Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest in the residential system. It operated between 1890 (opened under Roman Catholic administration in 1890) and 1969. After this, the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church. The school then operated as a day school until it eventually shut down in 1978.

From 1863 to 1998, more than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in these schools — they were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.

A deadly school

Forced to convert to Christianity, these children were also not allowed to speak their native languages. Many students even recalled being beaten for speaking their native languages. They also lost touch with their parents and customs. In 2008, the Canadian government apologized in Parliament and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many others were beaten and verbally abused.

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963. The Truth and Reconciliation report, which was released in 2015, said the policy amounted to "cultural genocide".

According to a BBC report, the Missing Children Project documented the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To conclude, more than 4,100 children died while attending a residential school have been identified, it says. In fact, the actual number of death that occurred at the school are impossible to determine properly.

Awful conditions

The Kamloops Indian Residential School had very questionable living conditions. Indigenous leaders actually blame a lot of the deterioration of the communities to school. The legacy of abuse and isolation could be cited as the "root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations".

George Manuel, an Aboriginal leader in Canada, who in 1970 was elected and served until 1976 as chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, was also a student at the school. Many years later, he would go on to recall his three strongest memories of the school: "hunger, speaking English, and being called a heathen because of my grandfather."

In addition to the strict rules in the cold confines of the school, there were also many accidents. It was previously reported that on December 24, 1924, the girls' wing of the school was destroyed by a fire. It forced 40 students into -10 °C (14 °F) weather in only their nightclothes. 

In another incident from three years later, in 1927, a report described the conditions at the school. It went on to conclude that the poor construction of buildings at the school led to "numerous infections, colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia" during the previous winter.

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