Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada were part of a larger colonial policy designed to erase language and culture and assimilate these groups so that they no longer exist as distinct peoples.
Trudeau said the discovery of 215 children found buried in a former Indigenous residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, is part of a larger tragedy. Institutions held children from families across the country.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said the remains of 215 children were confirmed last month using ground-penetrating radar.
“Apologizing for the tragedies of the past is not enough,” Trudeau said during an emergency debate in Parliament. “It is not enough for deceased children, for their families, or for survivors and communities. It is only with our actions that we can choose a better path.
From the 19th century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children had to attend publicly funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. Many have been beaten and verbally assaulted, and up to 6,000 are believed to have died.
The Canadian government apologized to Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in schools was rampant. Many students remembered being beaten because they spoke their mother tongue. They also lost contact with their parents and their customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited this legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug abuse on reserves.
Plans are underway to bring in forensic experts to identify and repatriate the remains of children found buried at the Kamloops site. Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he spoke with Trudeau on Tuesday and urged him to work with First Nations “to find all the anonymous graves of stolen children” in Canada.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up as part of the government’s school apology and settlement, released a report in 2015 and Bellegarde urged Trudeau to speed up implementation of its recommendations. Trudeau has said he will implement them and said the government has put in place legislation to strengthen Indigenous languages and culture.
The reconciliation commission recorded at least 51 children who died in school between 1915 and 1963. It identified about 3,200 confirmed deaths in schools across Canada, but noted that schools had not recorded the cause of the deaths in almost half of them. Some died of tuberculosis.
The commission said the practice was not to send the bodies of deceased students from schools to their communities. He also said the government wanted to cut costs so that adequate regulations were never established.
Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest such facility in Canada operated by the Roman Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969 before the federal government established it as a day school until 1978 when it was closed.
“It was the most horrible pain in the world to be a native, to be an Indian at the time,” said Clayton Peters, who spent seven years in school.
Peters and his brothers were forcibly taken to school in 1967. He recalls thinking that the children who suddenly disappeared from there were lucky because they had managed to escape, claiming that his unsuccessful attempt to flee had serious consequences.
“I always thought that they had run away like me, that they had succeeded, that they were free,” he said, crying.
Now he believes some of the children he knew could be buried at the site.
Empty pairs of children’s shoes have been placed in memorials across the country.
“Children should never have been sent to these so-called schools – places where they were separated from their families and communities, places where they faced terrible loneliness, places where they suffered unimaginable abuse. ”Trudeau said. “It’s Canada’s fault.