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Monday, June 14, 2021

Explained: Why indigenous groups in Canada want a nationwide search for children’s mass graves

Recently, the remains of over 215 children have been found at a former residential school in Canada’s British Columbia. Who set up these schools, and what was their purpose?

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 2, 2021 7:47:37 am
children mass graves canada, Kamloops residential school, canada residential schools, indigenous people canada, racism canada, indian express, express explainedFlowers, children's shoes and other items rest at a memorial at the Eternal flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 1, in recognition of discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Photo: AP)

Last week, the remains of over 215 children were found at a former residential school in Canada’s British Columbia. This has prompted Indigenous groups to call for a nationwide search for such mass graves.

Residential schools that operated from around the 1880s onwards were set up by Canada’s government and were run by churches with the goal of assimilation of Indigenous children, in order to eliminate the cultural differences that the missionaries and European settlers saw between themselves and the Indigenous Peoples, who comprise about five percent of Canada’s population currently.

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So what is happening?

On May 27, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation community said that with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, they were able to locate the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential school in Canada’s British Columbia. The finding has sparked outrage, prompting demands that a nationwide search be made for such mass graves.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has concluded that such Residential Schools were “a systematic, government- sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”

TRC has also likened the motivations of opening and operating these schools to “cultural genocide”.

Residential schools of Canada

Residential schools encompassed a schooling system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches. The aim was to educate Indigenous children but also to indoctrinate them into “Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream white Canadian society,” an article on the website of University of British Columbia (UBC) notes.

The Kamloops Residential school was operational from May, 1890 to July 1978 and was opened by the Roman Catholic administration. Officially, residential schools operated from 1880s onwards and ran until the latter half of the 1900s. In 1920, the Indian Act made attendance at the Indian Residential Schools compulsory for Treaty-status children between the ages of seven and 15.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), which was set up with the mandate of preserving a record of human rights abuses and promoting research and learning about residential schools, notes that out of the 150,000 students who attended these residential schools, many never returned home because they either ran away or died.

What happened at these schools?

This kind of a schooling system forcefully separated children from their families “for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages” , the UBC article notes. The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has identified 139 such residential schools for the purpose of providing compensation to former students.

These schools are believed to have been overcrowded, and offered a poor standard of education and a very regimented schedule to the children. These schools were also underfunded, where education was limited to imparting practical skills. For instance, girls in the school were taught to do domestic chores such as sewing, laundry, cooking and cleaning. Boys, on the other hand, were taught skills such as carpentry and farming.

A government medical inspector notes in 1907 that 24 per cent of previously healthy Indigenous children put in these schools were dying across Canada. But this is probably an underestimation, since it does not include the children who died at home. The schools sent critically ill students home. The UBC article says that the medical inspector noted that somewhere between 47-75 per cent of the children who were sent back home died shortly after.

What is the government’s stance on this?

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said searching for the mass graves is an important part of discovering the truth, Reuters reported. But he did not make any specific comments.

An article published in Foreign Policy in December 2020 noted that while Trudeau promoted himself as a pro-Indigenous candidate during elections, he “has, for the most part, shied away from direct federal government intervention in conflict resolution and failed to deliver on campaign promises.”

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