Two Hundred and Fifteen

Trigger Warning: This essay includes information about the deaths of indigenous students in residential schools in Canada.

Canadians are shocked and horrified to learn of the extent of the genocide of indigenous children which took place at residential schools. It is a story that must be retold if there is to be any justice.

We recently discovered that there are two hundred and fifteen unmarked graves beside a former residential school for indigenous students in Kamloops, British Columbia. The children died while in the custody of priests and nuns, and most of their lives were not even recorded. Only fifty-three of the deceased were in the official records.

Survivors of the school and relatives of the students have always insisted that many children died there, but oral histories can be easily dismissed. After all, our memories are not always reliable. But in this case, something more scientific affirmed those stories and the awful truth emerged. It took a ground-penetrating radar specialist locating the graves for the collective memory to be validated. Now I expect that we will find out that there are even more unmarked graves near other residential schools throughout Canada. There were 139 schools that operated with federal support and many others that were run by religious orders (both Catholic and Protestant) and provincial governments.

In Red Deer, Alberta nineteen graves have been located near the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, but sixty-nine children are reported to have died there. (Red Deer Advocate) There is speculation now that the actual number may be even higher than that, given the Kamloops example. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation provides more detail about the Red Deer school which operated from 1893-1919. Significantly, it points out that the school was sixty-five kilometres from the nearest native community. The students had been taken from their families and transported to this school far from everyone and everything they knew.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimates: “More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in such schools between the 1870s and 1990s. At least 4,100 children died while attending school — more than one in 50 students — and the TRC estimates the actual toll could be 6,000 or higher. “

Students write on a chalkboard at Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta in either 1914 or 1919. (United Church of Canada Archives)

Records of the causes of the deaths are absent, lost, or destroyed, but attempts are being made to seek out any records that the governments and churches that ran these schools may have kept. It is known that many people at that time died from diphtheria, Spanish flu, and tuberculosis (called “consumption”). In addition, the schools had poor sanitation and heating systems. Lyle Keewatin Richards, who is a member of a preservation society for a children’s cemetery, estimates that the residential schools had a 20% mortality rate.

Regardless of the causes of the deaths, these young people were buried in unmarked graves, sometimes with more than one to a grave. Often the families were not notified of the deaths, and the children’s bodies were not returned to their communities because it would have been too expensive.

The CBC article quotes an Alberta government resource guide on the schools’ history which says, “These schools were established to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Underfunded, located in remote places far away from children’s home communities, and lacking proper oversight, the schools were plagued by disease, dubious educational outcomes and physical, emotional and sexual abuse”.

The discovery in Kamloops has astounded the nation and this new awareness of the genocide has appalled us. In response, the current federal government has since committed $10 million over seven years to support the national TRC centre’s work, and $33.8 million over three years to create registries for residential school deaths and cemeteries. (CBC) If there is to be any reconciliation, there must first be truth and then there must be genuine apologies. Today, however, the Archbishop of Toronto said that a papal apology “may not be the way forward”. (CBC)

That, I suspect, is the kind of patronizing attitude that created the problem in the first place.

Update 24 June 2021: I am heartbroken to learn that another 751 unmarked graves have been found, this time at a residential school in Saskatchewan. There will be more. The settlers, the churches, and the governments have a lot of truth to face up to.

Update 30 September 2021: “To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school out of the more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children that were forced to attend.” (CBC)


  1. As we in the USA come to grips with the Black Wall Street Massacre in 1921 (June 1). Dead supposedly buried in unmarked graves. I was never taught a thing about this or about the Japanese internment camps during WWII. Being raised in a white community and taught in white schools did not benefit me much at all I appreciate now at age 77. 😦 Indigenous children killed, neglected, alone without familiar things around them -nightmare. 😦

  2. It is appalling that this situation, and so many of its kind, are covered up with lies and bullshit in this country. I have lived in this country all of my life and my heart has broken for the things that have been done to natives here – how they are treated by hospitals, schools, social services and the like. The ongoing arrogance of those who have done it, do it, and continue to encourage it, disgusts me. (Not just natives but all who are abused, exploited, and treated as less than – although natives have taken the worst of it. 😢).

  3. In my 4 year BEd there were about 40 indigenous students from all 3 kinds (Indian, Inuit, and Metis). Everybody got to know everyone pretty well and we worked together before and after graduation. Although it’s now socially verboten to talk honestly about residential schools, many of these students talked quite freely about their own experiences. One in particular was heartbroken when ‘her’ residential school closed in spite of a concerted effort by 3 local tribes to keep it open. Of course, we can’t possibly hear anything like this today. A senator who dared suggest there may have been some good derived from the system was promptly voted out of the Senate. Lesson learned.

    When one understands the evolving reasons for the integration and assimilation policy behind residential schools – and why this drastic action was not just taken but maintained over time – one at least has some idea of how such a tragedy-in-waiting could be allowed to unfold. One also becomes aware of how the program changed drastically over time, so it’s not a single policy the schools represent. One also becomes aware of how powerful were the two main churches involved in operating them and how money played such an essential role in their longevity. One also becomes aware of how pointed criticism of the Churches – specifically about how they operated and the staff they employed, and protected from criminal charges – was itself treated by the laity (and the media) as immoral to dare to criticize the Church busy doing its ‘Good Work!’ It also helps to appreciate just how much clout these churches had to cause political consequences for any politician willing to confront them.

    So it’s a complicated history to understand what we’re talking about and how results were created that were across the board in both harm and benefit. Today, we are to support ONLY that these schools were evil in both intention and outcome or be vilified as some kind of racist apologist.

    Its really easy, for example, to presume 215 unmarked graves are ‘evidence’ of a genocide. What isn’t so easy is to appreciate that this boarding school operated over 75 years with many thousands of students passing through its doors. It’s easy to forget how various epidemics and viruses could fill these graves, not least of which was the 1919 -20 pandemic (and we have some idea of how even children could die during various epidemics and why with staff turnover various records could be poorly maintained especially behind the closed doors of the both the (always competing) Catholic and Anglican churches). What is probably true is that some of these students may have died as a result of abuse. We don’t know. But what we know is NOT true is that these schools were the means to carry out a genocide.

    It’s easy to jump to all kinds of dramatic and nefarious conclusions about this grave site; we are groomed as Canadians to feel bad about the treatment of indigenous people – with no small measure of honest culpability in many cases – and so this story feeds into this Residential School narrative seamlessly. It was a source of great tragedy in many cases – especially centralizing a school for a vast geographical area where the children had to be forcefully collected and deposited sometimes hundreds of miles from home and where the summer recess did not make going home feasible. That policy had to be brutal to be carried out and that’s a pretty strong clue for anyone in any historcial context to think maybe it’s not a good idea. Nor is it any less tragic the amount of abuse that in some places became systemic and maintained over generations. This is unconscionable. Abuse, however, is not genocide.

    Assimilation and integration as a lofty goal has to include some measure of cultural suppression and so the charge of cultural genocide really does have some validity… especially when some northern schools had literally dozens of different tribes and languages and cultures represented by these students in single grades, all cultures which were targeted by policy to be suppressed. This IS true. And the reasons for this were caused by the federal government at various times trying to address the systemic problem that came from both the Treaties between the Crown and certain tribes they had inherited as well as the Indian Act itself under which the Crown was to act as a parent over all indigenous people as if perpetual children for all time. That’s hardly a good idea, either. Residential schools were intended to rectify a great wrong with this systemic power imbalance and not to carry out a genocide, although the replacement culture was intended to take the place of the tribal culture through education.

    Where the tribal culture has been codified and legally recognized as part of an ‘independent country’ to mollify the demand for cultural ‘respect and dignity’, we almost always have 3rd world conditions that is then blamed once again on the Canadian government for its maintenance and failure to rectify. The Canadian government – and all the people of Canada by association – is squarely between a rock and a hard place. The only lasting solutions have been through targeted negotiations with individual tribes. But with overlapping indigenous land claims amounting to over 130% of all of Canada, problems are going to be arise.

    The least we can do is not jump on board the blame train just yet with 215 unmarked graves but show dedication and perseverance to find out what has happened, by whom, and then try to make meaningful changes today, to use what has gone before to guide us to make better decisions tomorrow. Going along with the lie that the treatment of Indians (as defined by the Indian Act) has been a Canadian genocide is not an auspicious place to start. And here’s why:

    Even as late as the 1960s, the Catholic Church – granted what amounted to a monopoly over healthcare and social services – was paid more money per orphan in its care in Quebec if it designated them as psychiatric patients rather than orphans. Double the per diem rate. So were you taught in school that over 40,000 parentless children in Quebec – mostly white – spent their formative years as mental patients under the care of nuns and priests rather than orphans in need of care and schooling? Why not? Was it a ‘genocide’ against orphans who had much higher rates of death and abuse from what records we’ve been able to obtain than Indians in the residential school system? I shudder to think of the unmarked graves at these psychiatric institutions. I’ll bet they are there. We have many other similar cases across the country involving many ethnicities that received abusive treatment at the hands of government and law. Well, that little gem about orphans doesn’t fit into the nice, neat narrative of the cruel Canadian government implementing a supposed genocide against indigenous people, a government that has many, many cases of really poor stewardship over its entire history, not least of which is ‘trusting’ various large church organizations (in the name of ‘morality’) to care for people when what was being cared first and foremost by these religious institutions were their own economic and political well being.

    What’s lost in the narrative today is how much better the government is now than it ever was over the past 125 years. Especially getting religion out of some of the public domain. And that certainly includes issues involving indigenous people and the troubled history between the Crown and the 3 kinds of indigenous ‘peoples’ broken into 634 recognized tribes. You try negotiating anything with such numbers, all of which can be thrown out by a single ‘hereditary’ Chief. I wish you luck in your negotiations.

    1. It wasn’t until I emigrated to Canada that I began to understand how much harm colonization has done to the colonized.

      Your argument is that the colonizers did the best they could under the circumstances. It misses the impact of the circumstances upon the indigenous peoples. Your thesis is all head and no heart.

      In short, Europeans did a lot of harm and that harm is ongoing. Yes, the country has developed as the Europeans hoped it would. It did not, however, respect the land and the peoples it dominated.

      There are at least 215 unmarked children’s graves. If that does not give you pause, I don’t know what would.

      1. I am saying it’s both complicated and understandable… in the same way it’s understandable why and how people respond to, say, Covid-19; we can disagree – and for different reasons – about which policies are better or worse but we do no good by simplifying the issue to a black and white facsimile and then proclaim with moral certitude that there is only one right vilifying answer that is moral and everything else is immoral. That’s no different an approach than a religious belief and has no relation with what’s true. I just happen to think that what’s true matters very much in what I believe is probably the case. So the point I’m raising is actually obvious: none of us has any clue what those 215 bodies represent at a location that was a boarding school for over 75 years. In addition, there are important issues about finding out, about gaining access to the school’s records when the Church claims revealing these would be a breach of privacy, and perhaps even a breach of the Confessional. Again, regarding the bodies, we know nothing other than there are bodies but look at how quickly we are told to believe in one narrative only. That’s not advancing any kind of understanding: it’s evangelizing a belief. If it helps at all, I have my ‘lived experience’ to indicate the belief in the narrative especially regarding a genocide is not as morally pure as we are led to assume. In fact, we know it’s false.

        So this raises an interesting question: why do think so many people want to believe this is the case?

        1. “A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government spent six years hearing from 6,750 witnesses to document the history of the schools. In a report in 2015, it concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide.” New York Times

          1. Yes, and as I said there is some truth to that when the policy is aimed at integration by assimilation. The reasons for that policy are both complex and understandable. As history has shown, overall it has produced tragedy and great harm. That’s why it was cancelled. That’s why we had various Commissions. That’s why we’re trying to move forward, to be better, to do better. The goal of equity is regressive and maintaining collective guilt idiotic because it’s counter productive.

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