Content warning: This post mentions Indigenous residential schools, sexual assault, death, and the ongoing violence committed against Indigenous peoples.
Over the last few months, news about Residential School graves in Canada have been making international headlines. Many people have been talking about cancelling Canada Day, normally celebrated today on July 1st.
For many, this is a time of deep grief. For generations, Residential School survivors have been telling us that these mass graves of children existed. For Indigenous people, this topic is incredibly distressing. If you are Indigenous and are struggling with this news, you can call the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.
For people who were unaware of Canada’s history, this news may seem shocking or confusing. It is important for us to look this truth in the eye, understand what the implications have been and continue to be, let it touch our hearts, and take responsibility and action. This post is for people who are unsure about the history of residential schools. Much of the text and information has been copied with permission from a post by historian Jessica O’Neil, with local additions from various sources.
Residential Schools were a government-mandated policy officially enacted in 1880 with the passage of the Residential Schools Act. (However, French missionaries’ efforts to isolate and ‘educate’ First Nations children date back to the late 18th century.) These schools were designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child.” Laws dictated that families must send Indigenous children as young as four to these boarding schools. There were no exceptions. RCMP officers forcibly removed children from families who would not comply, and fined and sent parents to jail.
The schools were often in isolated areas or on islands, as otherwise, children would constantly try to escape and go back to their families. If geographically possible, parents would camp near schools to catch a glimpse of their children and would be driven away by RCMP under threat of violence.
Here on Cortes Island, BC where Hollyhock sits – the territories of the Klahoose, Tla’amin, and Homalco Nations – Indigenous children were taken by Union Steamships to far away residential schools on the mainland in Sechelt and Mission, BC. The racism was blatant – non-Indigenous children in the area were able to attend a local school on the island in Squirrel cove.
“At residential school the children were not allowed to speak their native language, and if they did they were punished. This is the time where people began to lose our language and culture, the governments wanted First Nations people to assimilate into white society. The government also banned traditional ceremonies from being performed in hopes of the first nations culture being lost forever. Today our community is working on language revitalization.” – Klahoose First Voices
The schools were operated by churches. Approximately 50% were Catholic, and the remainder were Protestant denominations, commonly Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, United, and Baptist. Children were not allowed to speak their language or practice any of their cultural traditions under threat of beating. Religion was used as just one form of abuse.
The schools were overcrowded and often unheated. Children were underfed due to budgetary constraints, and also as a form of both control and punishment. Sexual assault was sickeningly commonplace and often doled out as punishment. Many otherwise healthy children wasted away from depression and homesickness. Some drowned trying to swim home.
In 1907, the Department of Indian Affairs’ ‘Bryce Report’ documented a 40-60% mortality rate at these institutions, mainly from tuberculosis. The same report showed that 90 – 100% of children suffered severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Despite this information, the schools remained open for another 90 years.
The graveyards we are finding now are unmarked. Some of them include mass graves, in which more than one body was buried at the same time. Sadly, this is not new information. From 2008 – 2015, Canada engaged in one of the largest Truth and Reconciliation Commission processes ever undertaken. It concluded with 94 calls to action, most of which have not been actioned, further eroding Indigenous people’s trust in Canada. Many rightfully believe that the TRC was lip service.
Call to Action 75 states: “We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of Calls to Action 9 appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.”
The TRC told us those graves were there. The information has been readily available. No one was listening.
On May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Nation hired the services of a ground-penetrating radar team and confirmed what was already known. The remains of 215 children lay beneath the soil. “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” stated Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir. “Some were as young as three years old.”
On June 4, 104 potential graves were discovered by the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation at Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba. Chief Jennifer Bone says, “We must honour the memory of the children that never made it home by holding the Government of Canada, Churches and all responsible parties accountable for their inhumane actions.”
And most recently, as many as 751 unmarked graves were located near the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, associated with the Cowessess First Nation.“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,” says Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations in Saskatchewan. The repercussions of this genocide continues to affect Indigenous communities to this day. The intergenerational trauma caused by removing children from their families, culture, language and ceremony is vast. Generations of people are struggling with substance abuse as a direct result of the Residential Schools Act.
These graves do not represent all of the children who died at Residential Schools. There are many oral reports of priests, nuns, and teachers incinerating bodies (especially of those beaten or abused to death) in furnaces, or disposing of them in other ways.
These discoveries will continue. There were 150 residential schools in Canada, and nearly 150,000 children attended them over the course of 117+ years. But the graves are not the only horror. The true horror is the fact that we’ve known about all of this for generations, and that we allowed it to happen until 1997. The Federal Government, RCMP, local police forces, the courts, and many churches worked together to systematically abuse and eradicate entire generations of kids. This is why people are calling on cancelling Canada Day.
“If you are a thriving on stolen land, you are benefiting from the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples.” – Janelle Lapointe
If you’re Canadian, write to your MP and demand that they action the 94 TRC Calls to Action. Share and amplify posts by Indigenous people, and include the Survivors’ hotline. Listen to what local Indigenous people are asking for, and then help in any way you can – that includes donating generously to Residential School survivors.
And, at least for this year, consider skipping Canada Day ‘celebrations,’ and instead donate to survivors and reflect on how you can contribute to the 94 TRC Calls to Action. You may even consider donating your full Canada Day stat pay.
- Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action
- Klahoose First Nation: First Voices
- The Cortes Museum: The Schools of Squirrel Cove
- Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre: Sechelt, BC
- Reconciliation Canada: Residential Schools Background
- 1906-1910 The Bryce Report
- Kamloops Indian Band: Media Release
- Wikipedia: Canadian Indian Residential School System
- Union of Ontario Indians: An Overview of the Indian Residential School System
- Truth & Reconciliation Commission: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials
- Food Secure Canada: Food as a Weapon in the Residential School System