My country is reeling with the news that the bodies of 215 children -- some as young as three years old -- have been found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former Indian residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Available records indicated that 50 children died in the years the school operated (from 1890 to 1978), but the actual number was rumoured to be much higher.
Now we know those rumours were true.
And we also know this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Kamloops school was just one of more than 130 Indian residential schools that operated across the country, beginning in the 1830s. (And 215 x 130 = ....??) The last school closed in 1996 -- just 25 years ago. Seventy percent were run by the Catholic church and affiliated organizations (religious orders, etc.); others by the Anglican church and other Protestant denominations. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities over the years to attend these schools, as part of a plan to "civilize" (assimilate) them. Many of these children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused and malnourished. Illness and disease ran rampant in crowded classrooms and dormitories.
Many children never returned home.
Some have called this cultural genocide.
The discovery of these bodies is horrific and horribly sad -- but what's really sad is that I'm not completely surprised. In fact, my biggest surprise is that other people are so surprised. I've been scrolling through Twitter this morning and I was agog at the numbers of people saying they had never heard about the residential schools, let alone what happened inside them.
Most of the schools were located in the Canadian west, where I grew up, so perhaps that's why I'm more aware of them than, say, someone who grew up in southern Ontario. (Here's a map of the schools locations.) I knew that they existed when I was a teenager -- not because they taught this kind of stuff in school back then (they didn't -- and still don't, to a large extent), but because the community in Manitoba where I lived and went to junior and senior high school had a residential school on the outskirts of town. It was still in operation when we lived there, in the 1970s -- although I think perhaps by then the students just lived there and attended schools in town, because some of the residents were my schoolmates. It closed in 1975 and is now a museum. (The name of the chief in this story sounded familiar -- I dragged out my yearbook and sure enough, he & I went to school together, although I never knew him personally.) But I didn't know the full story of what went on there, and in the other schools, until some years later.
I can't pinpoint exactly when I became aware of what happened -- but this is not a new story for anyone who's been paying attention over the past 30+ years. Someone on Twitter mentioned a CBC television movie called "Where the Spirit Lives" as their first introduction to the residential schools and what happened there. The name rang a bell for me (although I don't think I watched it). I Googled, and it was made in 1989. (It looks like you can watch it YouTube.)
In the 1990s, some class action lawsuits were launched -- and then a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. One of its recommendations was a a public inquiry into the residential schools and their effect on generations of Aboriginal peoples. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched in 2009, with hearings held across the country. Its final report was issued in 2015. There were many stories about students who disappeared overnight, of children who never returned to their families, and of mass unmarked graves.
Here's a timeline of key events in the history of the residential schools.
I've seen demands on social media that the federal government apologize. Ummm, they did. Back in 2008. Billions of dollars in compensation have been paid out to survivors since then. During the 1980s and 1990s, many of the churches involved also issued apologies. While individual bishops and orders within the Roman Catholic Church have apologized, the church/pope has yet to issue a collective formal apology.
This is not something that just came to light in the late 20th/early 21st century either. In scanning Twitter, I found an amazing thread about Canada's chief medical officer, Peter Henderson Bryce, who raised the alarm about conditions in the schools... in 1907! A report he authored -- which made front page news at the time -- estimated that one quarter of the students had died of tuberculosis. Bryce was ultimately pushed out of public service and wound up publishing another report independently in 1922 -- almost a full century ago! -- laying blame squarely at the feet of the federal government. (Here's a digitized copy of the report -- titled "The Story of a National Crime.")
Racism against Indigenous peoples is (still) rampant in the places where I grew up, and among some of my family members and friends. I've struggled to overcome my own deeply ingrained prejudices and knee-jerk reactions. (I like to think I've made some progress.) Sometimes we only see what we want to see. One would like to think, though, that the unrecorded, unmarked graves of 215 children merits some national attention and soul-searching. As a friend said on social media, our country very publicly grieved the deaths of 16 young (white) hockey players in a bus crash in Saskatchewan a few years back, right? Why should this be considered any less horrific than that?
Every child matters. (Or should.)
And those who forget their history (or never learn it in the first place) are, sadly, doomed to repeat its mistakes.
You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.