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215 kids’ bodies unearthed in Canada: A look at its indigenous people, residential school system

Bodies of 215 children were discovered at what was once Canada's biggest residential school. Such schools operated from 1880s-1990s to 'assimilate' Indigenous children into Canadian society.

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New Delhi: In a gruesome discovery last week, a burial site with the remains of 215 unidentified children was found in Canada on the grounds of what used to be one of the country’s biggest residential schools, Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The residential school system, which operated from the 1880s to the late 1990s, was set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches to assimilate indigenous children into Canadian society.

As the country continues to grapple with the discovery, indigenous leaders have raised calls to excavate school burial sites across Canada.

“All these families have no idea what happened to them (children), they would want closure, questions answered and a thorough search,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron, said in an interview.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Monday expressed grief over the situation and said that excavating more sites “is an important part of discovering the truth”.

Meanwhile, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennet recently announced a 24×7 hotline to provide support to former students of residential schools and those affected.

ThePrint looks at the tragedy and the historical background to the discrimination against indigenous people in Canada.

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The discovery at Kamloops Indian Residential School

On 28 May, the bodies of 215 children were discovered in a burial site at the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School using new, ground-penetrating technology. The deaths are believed to be undocumented.

What prompted the excavation is not mentioned in local reports.

The school, which was closed in the late 1970s, is located in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. First Nations refer to a section of indigenous inhabitants of Canada, along with Inuits and Métis people.

First Nations are governed by the ‘Indian Act’, which means they elect chiefs and councils to make decisions on their behalf and pass by-laws in a limited number of areas.

Chief Harvey McLeod, of the Upper Nicola First Nation who attended Kamloops Indian Residential School as a child, told Canadian daily Toronto Star last week that it was “common knowledge” that some kids would go missing, though it was never spoken of openly.

Operating between 1890 and 1969, the Kamloops school had as many as 500 students registered. The federal government took over the facility’s operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school for nine years until it closed in 1978.

According to Rosanne Casimir, Chief of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, some of the bodies discovered on school grounds were as young as three years old.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), at least 51 children died at the school between 1914 and 1963.

The commission, active from 2008 to 2015, was borne out of  the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement — a landmark class action lawsuit that recognised the damage inflicted by the residential schools.

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Indigenous people of Canada

In Canada, the term ‘Indigenous peoples’ (or Aboriginal peoples) refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples who make up 4.9 per cent of the national population, according to a 2016 census.

After Europeans established permanent settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were severely threatened by colonial forces. They lost an estimated 98 per cent of their land and were forced to live in isolated reserves.

First Nations (a contemporary term for “Indian”) were the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, occupying territories south of the Arctic. The Inuits (contemporary term for “Eskimo”) mainly inhabit the northern regions of Canada. Métis peoples are of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry and live mostly in the Prairie provinces and Ontario.

In 1876, the Canadian government passed the Indian Act which became the primary law used to administer “Indian” status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land.

What was the residential school system?

Between 1831 and 1996, Canada’s residential school system forcibly separated more than 1.5 lakh First Nations children from their families in order to assimilate them into the Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living. They were forbidden to acknowledge their indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages.

According to an information resource set up by the University of British Columbia, children were subjected to physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. Their education relied on prayer, manual labour, light industry like woodworking and domestic work.

Theodore Fontaine, late chief of Sagkeeng First Nation and a residential school survivor, wrote in his memoirs: “Looking back on my years at school, I remember fondly some nuns, priests and others who I think were truly there in the belief that they could help us adjust to a foreign way of life.”

A TRC report notes that until the 1950s, students both lived and were educated in the same institution but under the integration policy of the 1950s, some students lived in hostels and were educated in day schools. The last residential school closed in 1996.

On 8 March 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class action settlement in Canadian legal history, was issued. It entailed a Common Experience Payment (CEP) to be paid to all former residential school students, setting up of TRC and more.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly issued an apology, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to all indigenous people acknowledging the country’s role in the residential school system.

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