Warning: This article discusses sexual and physical violence, child abuse, and cultural genocide.
From around 1823 until they were officially shut down in 1996, residential schools operated in almost every province and territory in Canada.
These residential schools, which saw over 150,000 Indigenous children pass through their doors, were owned and operated by the Catholic Church and were part of a plan based on the "aggressive assimilation" and colonization of children and the eradication of Indigenous culture. Recent tragic discoveries at some of these former residential schools have sparked a resurgence of interest in what really went on within them, as well as a reckoning about their enduring legacy.
In early June 2021, 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the Kamloops Residential School, which was operated from 1890 to 1969.
Kamloops Residential SchoolKamloops Residential School
The graves contained the bodies of children who died at the school. They were discovered by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, who hired a specialist in ground-penetrating radar to examine the school grounds.
"To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," said Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir in a statement. "Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children."
Then, on Thursday, 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, established in 2008 to look deeper into the traumatic legacy of residential schools, concluded that 4,100 children may have died at the schools. However, Murry Sinclair, a judge who helped head the commission, now says that he believes the number may be over 10,000.
What happened to children at residential schools?
Residential schools were owned and operated by the Catholic Church in an effort to wipe out Indigenous culture. They forcibly removed children from their homes and banned Indigenous practices and languages on their grounds. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee called the school system a form of "cultural genocide."
The causes of death of the children vary; but malnutrition, disease, fires, and physical and sexual abuse are among the primary causes.
Reports by a doctor found that children at Kamloops were extremely malnourished, and schools suffered deaths when disease like tuberculosis swept through them thanks to their cramped conditions and poor health regulations. Accidents such as fires also caused high numbers of deaths, and most of the schools had few safety measures in place.
Former students testified that sexual abuse was rampant, particularly among the priests and students. Some even testified that they had witnessed the infants of children impregnated by priests being thrown into furnaces. Many children also drowned or froze to death after trying to run away.
Parents of children who died at the schools were rarely even directly notified about their child's death, or allowed to bring their bodies home for burial.
Former students have been testifying and telling stories about the abuse suffered at the schools for decades. "A lot of survivors, my relatives, they've been saying this for years and years — that there was a lot of death, there's a lot of unmarked graves," said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "But nobody ever believed the survivors."
Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the Mareival residential school, said he witnessed many burials during his time at the school. He also said children were frequently slapped, kicked, and punched, and were forced to eat rancid food and even their own vomit.
"This has to be a worldwide cry of what systemic racism created," he said. "We have to try and fix it in a respectful way so that we can move forward, not only as Indigenous nations of Canada, but as a country. We have to make this right."
What should happen in the wake of these discoveries?
In response to these new findings, many have requested formal apologies from the Catholic Church, which operated the schools. Pope Francis did not provide a formal apology, but did state that "the sad discovery further raises awareness of the pains and sufferings of the past."
The statement was far too little, according to Indigenous advocates. "The Church needs to accept full responsibility, release all its Indian Residential School records, and trade in shallow placatory remarks for meaningful apologies through action," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in a statement.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also requested that Pope Francis issue a formal apology. "I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil," Trudeau said.
Across the board, advocates are calling for more sustained accountability from both the Church and the government. "There was no time to mourn, there was no time to sit with the grief, it was just an immediate spring to action and seize the moment, and try to harness the attention and the political will to push through the things that really matter, and that will really affect change in our community," Eva Jewell, associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, who co-authored a 2018 report on the residential schools, said of the response to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's initial findings. "I would like to see more sustained commitment and action, and I hope Canadians will commit to that."
In response to the revelations, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 schools, said it would reveal all documents in its possession and issued an apology. But many records have been changed, destroyed or lost over the years, leading many to call for an independent inquiry.
Murray Sinclair is calling for an official independent investigation into what happened at residential schools. "We need to know who died, we need to know how they died, we need to know who was responsible for their deaths or for their care at the time that they died," said Sinclair, who is a member of the Peguis First Nation. "We need to know why the families weren't informed. And we need to know where the children are buried."
Others have emphasized the importance of finding and identifying the lost children. Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, stated that finding the graves would be "very healing for a lot of our people."
She continued, "The thing that is the open wound for our communities right now is the fact that our children were taken, and they're lost, and we don't know where they went and we don't know what happened to them. We don't know their final resting place."
Still others have called for more education and awareness about the schools and their horrific legacy, which is not currently discussed in most history books or curriculums, with many emphasizing the nuance and care that must be taken when teaching children about these events — particularly children whose families may have been affected by them.
In the United States, which also operated hundreds of government-subsidized residential schools dedicated to wiping out Indigenous culture, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — whose grandmother was loaded on a train as a child and shipped to one of the schools — has launched an investigation into the schools' records, with a deadline of April 2022. "We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools," Haaland said.
Some feel that this investigation's findings will inevitably provoke similar revelations in the United States.
"There is a reckoning happening," said Chase Iron Eyes, an influential Indigenous activist and lead counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project. "They don't teach this in schools — not in Canadian schools, not in American schools — that there are mass graves of children at church-run, government-sponsored residential schools and boarding schools. And now we're no longer able to hide from those truths."
Residential schools have enduring consequences that continue to affect Indigenous communities today. "The history of residential schools has been identified as having long lasting and intergenerational effects on the physical and mental well-being of Indigenous populations in Canada," reads a study published in Public Health Reviews.
"The findings from this scoping review highlight the importance of considering government policies and historical context as critical to understanding the contemporary health and well-being of Indigenous peoples," it concludes. "This includes other colonial policies, forms of cultural oppression, loss of autonomy, and disruption of traditional life, as well as residential schooling. Better knowledge of how the effects of these historically traumatic events continue to affect communities and individuals may help inform both population health interventions and the care and treatment of individuals."
Another study by researchers at the University of Ottawa found "empirical support for the concept of historical trauma, which takes the perspective that the consequences of numerous and sustained attacks against a group may accumulate over generations and interact with proximal stressors to undermine collective well-being."
The Enduring Violence of Generational Trauma
The idea that trauma can be passed on through generations was first identified in children whose parents had suffered in the Holocaust. Further studies have found that intergenerational trauma can lead directly to physical ailments, as well as mental health problems.
In practice, residual trauma from the residential schools has manifested in high levels of alcoholism, mental illness, and other issues that still plague First Nations peoples today.
The schools left "intractable legacies of residential schools including poverty, addictions, and domestic and sexual violence," reads a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee which found that the residential schools directly created many of the issues that continue to endure and tear apart First Nations communities today.
"One of the most devastating impacts of the residential school system was that it gave most students a poor education. For many, that led to chronic unemployment or underemployment, poverty, poor housing, substance abuse, family violence, and ill health."
The problems persist. "Governmental failure to meet the educational needs of Aboriginal children continues to the present day," the report continues. "Government funding is both inadequate and inequitably distributed. Educational achievement rates continue to be poor," the Committee found, citing a lack of government funding for schools on reservations as bearing "a shameful resemblance to the residential schools."
For those who suffered through the school systems and who continue to face their enduring consequences, the effects are felt viscerally.
"That anger and that resentment that I beared towards my parents, it really, really was very destructive and it led me down a road of heavy, heavy, heavy drinking and I ended up on the streets in Vancouver," said North Peigan, who was one of thousands of children taken from their parents in a sweep known as the Sixties Scoop.
For Peigan, healing only came when he began talking to his mother about her own experience at a residential school. "Once she was able to share with me her experiences and her trauma that she came home with, you know, coming out of residential school, I was able to actually work through that anger and that resentment that I had towards her," he said.
Now, he works with a group called the Legacy of Hope Foundation, which raises awareness and understanding about the residential schools. "To realize true Reconciliation requires consistent efforts by all individuals, communities, service providers, leaders and all levels of government," the organization's website reads.
Healing and reconciliation are slow and nonlinear processes, however, and the discovery of these unmarked graves — coupled with the government's Catholic Church's ongoing failure to adequately respond — has also provoked a more visceral kind of backlash. Since the most recent discovery at Marieval, four Catholic Churches on Indigenous land in Canada have burned.
Given the tragic murder of thousands of children and the ongoing legacy of horror and destruction facilitated by those churches, the response is not hard to understand. Many are calling for the Catholic church to be charged for crimes against humanity.
"What happened to Indigenous children is genocide, and the legacy of that continues through denial and inaction," said Beverly Jacobs, a University of Windsor law professor from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. "All entities involved in residential schools...must be charged with genocide and tried at the International Criminal Court."
But reconciliation is never simple, and apologies and criminal charges only scratch the surface of what's really needed, particularly since the issues created by the residential school systems and other traumas continue to manifest today. "Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, the government is fighting a human rights tribunal order to compensate Indigenous children who suffered in foster care and a federal minister has admitted racism against Indigenous peoples is rampant within the healthcare system," writes Leyland Cecco in The Guardian. "Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups."
These realities are the result of sustained racial inequality, according to Sinclair.
"It took constant effort to maintain that relationship of Indigenous inferiority and white superiority," he said. "To reverse that, it's going to take generations of concerted effort to do the opposite."
Anyone affected by residential schools can call the free 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.