Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
At least 4,100 children have died while attending residential schools in Canada. And in the wake of the horrific news from Kamloops, B.C. — where 215 children were recently found buried at a former residential school — the number has grown.
On Thursday, the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in B.C., Rosanne Casimir, said the remains were found last week buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“Some were as young as three years old,” said Casimir. “We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
The 215 deaths are now tacked onto the 4,100 children who have previously been identified as having died of disease or accident while attending residential school, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Missing Children Project.
“I think that the heartbreaking revelation of yesterday means that there will be more,” Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told Global News. “And we know there is a ‘knowing’ about these situations, probably from coast to coast.”
In all, about 150,000 First Nations children went through Canada’s church-run residential school system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s. In many cases, children were forced to attend under a deliberate federal policy of “civilizing” Indigenous Peoples, the 2015 TRC report found.
In the 1920s, residential schools, like the Kamloops Indian Residential School, forced children to attend by law. If they didn’t, their parents faced prison time, according to the TRC.
A large number of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools across Canada never returned to their home communities. Some ran away, while others died at school, according to the Missing Children Project, which launched in 2007.
The project works with residential school survivors and Indigenous organizations to document the deaths and burials of children who died while attending residential schools.
According to the project, many children were poorly nourished, physically or sexually abused and developed tuberculosis or other infections. They also died by suicide, died in accidents or simply ran away and were never seen or heard from again.
It’s still not known what happened to the 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, but a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
“It’s exceptionally horrific,” Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies, said. “The scale is breathtaking, almost unspeakable. There have been previous grave sites found on residential schools, but this one unmarked mass grave, you see it as a crime against humanity.”
He said many of the known deaths in residential schools are substantiated with documents. But others, like what was found in Kamloops, were “easy to dismiss, as until now their lives didn’t exist. Their deaths were not recorded anywhere.”
Katherine Ainsley Morton, a PhD candidate at Memorial University Newfoundland, works on anti-colonial research in Canada, specifically with residential schools. She said that sadly, unmarked burial grounds like this have been found before.
“The Missing Children Project is so important and so critical,” she said. “There have been so many undocumented deaths, as the system did not report fatalities in these residential schools, so there is no paper trail.”
She said some schools would keep “ad hoc” records. For example, when children went missing they were reported as “unenrolled.” Many families also never received any information when their child died or went missing.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know and what we don’t know. One hundred and fifty thousand kids were incarcerated in these schools…. People say the number of children who died could actually be closer to 6,000.”
Unmarked burial sites at residential schools, such as the one found in Kamloops, have been found before in Canada, in places like Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, Morton said.
And more could be out there, but it’s difficult to get access to the sites, Morton said.
Many residential schools have been demolished or turned into a golf course, schools or museums that preserve Indigenous history. But she said there is a lot of “bureaucratic red tape” when trying to get access to these sites to investigate burials.
“However, there has been an urgency on the part of the federal government since 2007, so the work is still fairly new,” she said.
Bennett told Global News these “horrific” revelations mean other communities with knowledge keepers may follow and try to find the lost children in residential schools.
She said although the work of the TRC is so important in finding these children, “the knowledge keepers and the people who passed down stories and their understanding of what happened is going to be so important moving forward.”
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the news painful, adding “while it is not new to find graves at former residential schools in Canada, it’s always crushing to have that chapter’s wounds exposed.”
— With files from The Canadian Press