Explained | What’s the history behind the remains of children found at former residential school sites in Canada?

Explained | What’s the history behind the remains of children found at former residential school sites in Canada?

The story so far: In late June, Cowessess First Nation, an indigenous organisation, found the remains of 751 people, mainly indigenous children, at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan province in Canada. This, as per Cowessess, was “the most significantly substantial” discovery of graves of indigenous children to date in the country. Indigenous groups have uncovered two more sites at former residential schools in recent months, both in British Columbia, taking the number of unregistered graves found since May 29 to 1,148. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Canadians today are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved.” Indigenous organisations have urged his government to probe the schools and expedite measures for reconciliation. This week, Cowessess First Nation signed an agreement with Saskatchewan and the federal government reclaiming its right to look after its own children.

What’s the residential school system?

The residential school system was a federal government initiative aimed at forcefully assimilating indigenous children into the European way of life. Started in the 19th century, there were at least 130 residential schools across the country. The schools were funded by the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs and run by churches, mostly the Catholic Church.

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In 1883, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald defended the system in Parliament. “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages … It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” he said. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1894, under Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell, made attendance at these schools compulsory for indigenous children. They were forcefully taken away from their families. Between 1883 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were sent to these schools. Many of them never reunited with their families.


What happened to the children?

In the residential schools, the children were not allowed to speak their language or practise their culture. Many of them were emotionally, physically and sexually abused. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2008, estimated that some 4,100 children attending these schools either died or went missing. The Commission said it was impossible to reach a conclusion on the exact number of deaths because of the schools’ burial policy and poor record-keeping. In most cases, the authorities did not even hand over the bodies of the children to their families. The Canadian government’s Indian Affairs policy was to “hold the schools responsible for burial expenses when a student died at school”. The Commission wrote, “Parental requests to have children’s bodies returned home for burial were generally refused as being too costly.” The children died mainly due to tuberculosis, malnutrition and other illnesses caused by the inhuman conditions inside the schools. Murray Sinclair, a former judge and Senator who headed the Commission, said recently that the actual number of deaths could be “well beyond 10,000”. Indigenous organisations have also claimed that the actual number is more than the official estimates.

How has the Canadian government responded?

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued the first formal government-level apology to the indigenous community for the residential schools. The government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered some 7,000 statements from survivors of the schools to prepare a detailed report uncovering the truth behind the system. It also made 94 recommendations for reparation and reconciliation. The Commission report, published in 2015, concluded that the school system amounted to a “cultural genocide”. The recommendations included independent investigations into the crimes of the past and measures to protect Aboriginal rights and culture.

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Mr. Trudeau had promised during the campaign that addressing the indigenous question would be central to his agenda. But indigenous groups say the federal government has been slow in its response to the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. Several First Nations, which are using ground-penetrating radar technology to mark human remains buried underground, have asked for government help in quickly uncovering graves. The Trudeau government had set aside 27 million Canadian dollars to search for graves, but did not release the funds until after the findings of the remains in British Columbia were announced earlier this year.

Has the Catholic Church apologised?

The Commission also asked the Catholic Church to issue an apology and take steps for reconciliation. After the latest discovery of graves, Pope Francis said “the sad discovery further raises awareness of the pains and sufferings of the past”, but stopped short of issuing an apology. In 2018, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Pope could not personally apologise for the residential school system.

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