A First Nations community in western Canada has announced the discovery of at least 160 unmarked graves close to a former residential school – the latest in a series of grim announcements from across the country in recent weeks.
Members of the Penelakut Tribe in south-western British Columbia said in a statement late on Monday that the graves had been discovered near the site of the Kuper Island industrial school on Penelakut Island, nearly 90km north of the provincial capital Victoria.
Canada’s residential schools
Canada’s residential schools
Over the course of 100 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.
They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect and suicide; many were never returned to their families.
The last residential school closed in 1996.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Survivor testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife at the schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed down to younger generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.
Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, and racism against Indigenous people is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.
The commissioners identified 20 unmarked gravesites at former residential schools, but they also warned that more unidentified gravesites were yet to be found across the country.
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“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighbouring communities attended the Kuper Island industrial school. We also recognized with a tremendous amount of grief and loss that too many did not return home,” said chief Joan Brown in the statement.
At least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools across the country, which were funded by the federal government and run by churches as part of the campaign to strip the youth of their cultural identity.
Those familiar with the systematic neglect and abuse at the schools had predicted more unmarked graves would be uncovered after the first discoveries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan shocked the country last month.
On Tuesday, prime minister Justin Trudeau said his “heart breaks” for the Penelakut Tribe and for Indigenous people across the country. “The [graves] reaffirm a truth they have long known,” he said.
Kuper Island school, operated by the Catholic church, was open from 1890 to 1975 and gained notoriety as a dangerous institution.
Two sisters drowned while trying to flee the school in the 1950s, and another student died by suicide in 1966, according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
Former employee Glenn Doughty, who worked at the school from 1967 to 1986, was convicted of sexually abusing students in 2002. He was sentenced to three years, after serving other sentences for sexual assaulting students at other residential schools.
During the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, survivors recounted being “kidnapped” and forcefully brought to the school and the fear many felt within the institution’s walls.
“It is impossible to get over acts of genocide and human rights violations. Healing is an ongoing process, and sometimes it goes well, and sometimes we lose more people because the burden is too great,” Brown wrote.
The community plans on holding two healing sessions in the coming weeks, as well as a march to commemorate the generations of children lost to the residential school system.
“We are at another point in time where we must face the trauma because of these acts of genocide. Each time we do, it is possible to heal a little more,” Brown wrote.
The announcement from the Penelakut Tribe comes ahead of an expected report from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Thursday. The First Nation says it will provide greater detail on the 215 unmarked graves discovered using ground penetrating radar in late May.