A Cultural Genocide: Residential Schools in Canada

TW: This article contains mentions of systematic child abuse.

Above: Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where the remains of 215 children were discovered in an unmarked mass grave. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57291530 

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that the remains of 215 children had been discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia on 27 May, 2021. The final resting place of these children, some of whom were no older than three years old, is a mass, unmarked grave. To the best of our current knowledge, the deaths were undocumented by school administrators. None have been excavated yet. The families whose children are known to have attended the school have been contacted, and early findings were expected around mid-June. 

One of the largest residential schools in Canada, the Kamloops Indian Residential School was opened in 1890 and operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969. The government undertook its operation from 1969 until its closure in 1978. 

In light of the findings, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted ‘it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history’. These events, however, cannot be confined to a part of Canada’s ‘history’. They are an intrinsic part of its present. Residential schools were compulsory and were operated by religious and government bodies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The last of these schools closed in 1996. Over 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes, the majority of whom never returned home. The few who survived (and by surviving, they were physically able to leave the school) continue to suffer from severe emotional trauma. Systematic physical, emotional, and sexual abuse was used to control children. Survivors recall being beaten for speaking their native languages. A man who attended the Pine Creek Residential School for three years from the age of five describes ‘strapping, ear pullings, and putting soap in [their] mouths if [they] talked back or spoke [their] own language.’ These abuses just scrape the surface of the horrifying events that took place against indigenous children in a blatant attempt to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. 

The Canadian government issued a formal apology for their involvement in the operation of the residential schools in 2008, and the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report deemed the policy to be a ‘cultural genocide’ against indigenous communities. In 2019, Canada revealed the names of the 2,800 victims of these residential schools, who had previously been unidentified.

Above: Volunteers show the scroll bearing the names of the 2,800 children who died in residential schools. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57325653 

In recent years, Canada has been making efforts towards reconciliation. They pledged 27 million Canadian dollars towards the effort to preserve gravesites and help identify more victims. They are collaborating with indigenous communities, with the Minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett saying, “We will be there to support every community that wants to do this work,” adding that they believe this work is “urgent”. Indigenous activists and Bennett agree that these are the first steps that must be taken towards reconciliation.

-Kate Grossenbacher










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