As I write this, stories are emerging by the hour about the devastating discovery of a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. In May, with the assistance of ground-penetrating radar, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation located the remains of 215 children—some as young as 3—on the school property. A Toronto Star article by Jacob Cardinal noted, “While the timeframe for the deaths is unknown, a mass grave is typically created within a very short period of time. Either that or the school treated the grave as a landfill. Both scenarios are horrific.” Neither the children’s deaths, nor the mass grave, were documented by school administrators.
The announcement shook Canada, my adopted home country, from coast to coast. Communities held vigils and created moving tributes, often collections of children’s shoes, moccasins and plush toys, commemorating the 215 innocent lives lost. Manny Jules, a survivor of residential schools and former chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation noted, “Now that this is out, the mental anguish that my people are suffering across the country is horrendous.”
[©Pam Crichton, Dundas, Ontario]
From 1863 to 1996, more than 150,000 children were forcibly taken from their families and placed under the “care” of the Canadian federal government and Catholic church in boarding schools. The explicit intent was to “kill the Indian in the child,” by separating them from their families, Native languages, and cultures.
The horrors that unfolded in these schools are nearly impossible to comprehend. Illness, hunger and cruel discipline were the norm. More than 90 percent of these children experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse. In the earliest decades of the residential schools, children’s mortality rates within individual schools could top 50 percent. (Source: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.) Thousands of children never returned to their parents; those who did often grappled with severe personal and intergenerational trauma, which persists to this day. (Of course, Canada is not alone in this perpetuation of cultural genocide; the site of a notorious “Indian School” remains 90 miles from my hometown in Nebraska. It has been preserved as a museum and digital reconciliation project.)
Celeste Smith is Oneida from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, and lives in southern Ontario. She wrote of the Kamloops discovery:
Children’s shoes memorialize the 215 children’s graves discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School. [©Pam Crichton, Dundas, Ontario]
“It’s been a tough week to be Indigenous. A lot of us are thinking about our grandparents and parents right now. I know I have been. Sometimes, I have felt a kind of shame that my grandma left the reserve and we lost our culture and language. I have told myself my grandma made the decision she did because she wanted to protect her kids from what she experienced. And while I have always known this to be true, if I am honest with myself, it is only now that I am realizing the enormity of this fact. She left as soon as she was old enough to leave the residential school. And I know I would do the same. I would run so far away from that place. and I would never look back.” Celeste continued, “I’m so tired of grieving. Of sadness and loss. Of reliving our collective horror at the hands of a state that never wanted us to survive. Of being ‘resilient.’ I don’t want to be resilient. I want to be whole and not shattered into a million pieces.”
The children at Kamloops deserved to grow, learn, and play. To know the loving care of their parents and the camaraderie of their relatives; the tastes of their favorite foods, the tones and inflections of their mother tongues.
Canada grieves this discovery; but from grief comes growth, and purpose. Many survivors of the schools are still alive and have stories to tell. Efforts are underway to investigate the grounds of other residential schools, and many individuals and organizations are working to protect Indigenous languages and cultural practices for future generations.
Yet we will never grasp or recover what was lost. As a statement from the Ontario Native Women’s Association said, “Children’s roles in our communities are beyond sacred. They are our future generations; Elders, Knowledge Holders, Leaders and Storytellers. The 215 children have told their story. One of colonization, genocide, erasure. We must be responsible to act on these lives and stories.”
At Exchange Press, we take this responsibility seriously. We are committed to being a part of this journey toward justice and reconciliation, and in particular we will work to elevate the contributions and innovations of Indigenous leaders in our field.
Learn more about Indigenous communities in Canada and their search for truth and accountability: