Mass grave discovered on Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds

April 02, 2022

The Kamloops Indian Residential School, formerly known as the Kamloops Industrial School, was established in 1890. In 1893 the school officially changed its name to The Kamloops Indian Residential School and under the authority of the government and catholic church, aimed to acculturate Indigenous students by removing them from their communities and forbidding them to practice their traditions and language within the school setting. Indigenous students were taken from their communities and families and forced to attend the Catholic boarding school. As a result, they lost contact with their culture and would later experience issues with identity, isolation and the long-term psychological effects of abuse. It would later be revealed that many of the children who attended The Kamloops Indian Residential School suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of adults, most of which were clergymen and nuns, running the establishment.

150,000 indigenous children were removed from their families and forced into residential schools from 1863 - 1998. At one point in the 1950s the school had around 500 students enrolled, the most in its history at any one time. Living victims recall army vehicles and cattle trucks coming to their villages to take them from their families. On arrival, all students had their hair cut off and were deloused and disinfected “like animals”.

In 1876, a policy known as the Indian Act was introduced in Canada. The act aimed to eliminate indigenous culture in Canada by assimilating indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society. One technique used to achieve this goal was to force indigenous children into residential schools, such as Kamloops Residential. The act was amended in the late thirties and early forties to allow First Nations people to dispute land claims in a legal court and give women the right to vote in band elections.

Many First Nations people, however, did not want to be forced to assimilate to Canadian society as they would lose the benefits and rights they held as "Indians". These rights and benefits had been agreed to in much earlier treaties and mainly pertained to land. Certain promises (such as access to education, resources and small payments) were exchanged for land between the Crown and indigenous peoples that resulted in the loss of the majority of the indigenous land as the treaties went largely misunderstood. As a result, Indigenous people were restricted in their movements and made to reside on reserves. The Indian Act was amended once again in the eighties as many organizations deemed the policy to be a violation of human rights. In 1999 the First Nations Land Management act was passed, affording First Nations governments more authority, however, the Indian Act is still an active and controversial law that governs Indigenous peoples reserves and status.

Although not mandatory at first, amendments made to the Indian Act in the 1920s made attending Residential Schools mandatory for indigenous children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) received $72 Million from the Canadian government from 2007 - 2015. This funding was poured into their work educating the public about the history of residential schools in Canada and the effects on the First Nations. The organization spent several years travelling to various parts of Canada to meet with over 6000 witnesses. The TRC was given access to millions of records by the Government of Canada, which they used to create a historical record of residential schools. The result was a final report spread across six volumes that highlighted the injustices against indigenous children forced into residential schools and the effects on the community. The report concluded that the residential school policy was a cultural genocide. Many indigenous leaders have referred to the Indian Act Legacy as one of the key factors in high rates of alcoholism and addiction found on reservations across Canada and the U.S.

Since the report was revealed to the public, the Canadian government has paid over $3 billion Canadian dollars to living survivors of the policy and are working on reconciling with First Nations people. In October 2019 TRC unveiled a 50 meter long, red memorial scroll inscribed with the names of 2,800 victims who died at the hands of residential schools since the 1800s.

In May 2021, a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 children was discovered during a survey of the grounds using a ground-penetrating radar. Kamloops’ Residential School administrators did not record the deaths of the children and The First Nations is currently working together with the local coroners’ offices as well as other specialists in the field to determine the cause and time of death for all 215 decedents. Although not much is officially known about the identities of the deceased children, some of them are reportedly as young as three-years-old. The children were buried in unmarked graves and their family and communities were never notified. The victims came to be known as the children who never came home.

Deaths were not uncommon in residential schools. Sick children were reportedly left untreated, and many died from their ailments and injuries but not before long periods of suffering, unbeknownst to their parents who were rarely informed. In 1937 one child died after contracting measles and pneumonia and a letter that was sent to her parents informing them of the death never reached them. Sickness and death were an everyday fear for children and their families. Students often died of measles and tuberculosis or viral infections that commonly affected those who contracted measles. The conditions were so cramped and overcrowded that disease would spread quickly and with ease through the few dormitories that students were crammed in to. There was no isolation unit for sick students.

Some children died trying to escape the schools. The bodies of runaway students were often found near the Lillooet district train tracks. Some perished from exposure. Living victims recall persistent nightmares after finding other young students who had hanged themselves and committed suicide in other ways. Many recall forced abortions and stories of children being taken from young girls who had been sexually abused by priests at the school. The babies, they said, were thrown into a furnace.

In a tweet the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, said: "The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart - it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you."

The true number of indigenous children who died at The Kamloops Indian Residential School will never be known, however, authorities are working to identify the bodies of those recently discovered in a mass grave on the property and expect to update the public sometime this month.

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