Two Hundred and Fifteen

6 June 2021

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)