Remains of 215 Children Found at Former School

The remains of 215 Indigenous children have been found buried at a former residential school in British Columbia, a First Nations community said on Thursday, reopening old wounds inflicted by Canada's colonial history.

Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc, announced that the remains had been found in the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School over the weekend. The children, whose deaths are thought to be undocumented, include some as young as 3 years old.

Residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and run by churches from the 1870s, with the last school shut in 1996, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. There were more than 130 of the institutions across the country.

At least 150,000 children belonging to First Nation, Inuit and Metis groups attended the schools, which sought to suppress their cultural and religious identities and force them to assimilate into white Christian society.

Students—often forcibly removed from their families—were subjected to severe discipline and starvation at the residential schools, as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The children were strictly prohibited from speaking their languages and practicing their cultures.

Although the exact number of children who died at residential schools is unknown, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 students who died of disease or in accidents.

The remains at Kamloops Indian Residential School were discovered with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, according to the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc statement.

"We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify," Casimir said in the statement. "To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths."

"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."

The statement added that the next steps would include engaging with the coroner and reaching out to communities whose children had attended the school, in addition to working with the Royal British Columbia Museum and others to uncover any existing records of the children's deaths.

Marc Miller, Canada's minister of indigenous services, said he offered his department's "full support" to Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc and surrounding communities in light of the "heartbreaking news."

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of Canada's Assembly of First Nations, called the discovery "painful."

"While it is not new to find graves at former Residential Schools in [Canada], it's always crushing to have that chapter's wounds exposed," he wrote on Twitter.

You can access the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, set up to provide support for former Residential School students and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 24-Hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

— Perry Bellegarde (@perrybellegarde) May 28, 2021

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Kamloops school was opened in 1890 under Roman Catholic administration. It was the largest school in the residential school system, with peak enrolment at 500 students in the early 1950s.

Educational program Project of Heart described the conditions at Kamloops as "atrocious," but "typical" of residential schools.

The institution's "rampant" neglect and abuse led some children to take their own lives, the program added. Many tried to run away, but were caught and punished. Students also suffered from "epidemic levels" of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis because of poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, malnourishment, inadequate clothing, and a lack of funding and medical care.

The school closed in 1978.

A formal apology for the residential school system was issued in 2008 by Stephen Harper then prime minister. Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister, also apologized in 2017, calling the schools a "dark and shameful chapter" in Canada's history.

Canadian residential school is seen in BC
The abandoned grounds of the former Lejac Residential School in British Columbia, seen on June 23, 2019. Indigenous children were subjected to various forms of abuse and neglect in Canada's residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images