On May 28, 215 children’s remains were found in what was once the largest Indian residential school in Canada at Kamloops with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc admits this was an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented” by the Kamloops Indian Residential School (IRS). The First Nations Health Authority and the British Columbia Premier, John Horgan, called the discovery of the children’s remains “extremely painful” and "a tragedy of unimaginable proportions” highlighting the violence and consequences of the residential school system respectively.
In 1884, amendments to the Indian Act 1876 provided for the creation of IRS in Canada; predominantly funded and operated by the Government of Canada and Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United churches. Further amendments in 1920 made it mandatory for every ‘Indian’ child from seven to sixteen years of age to attend them.
In 1933, the children’s legal guardianship was assumed by their principals, mostly upon the forcible surrender of legal custody by parents.
The IRS system aimed to assimilate the natives into society, to “civilize the Indians”. Nicholas Flood Davin in ``Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (1879) recorded that if anything could be done with an ‘Indian’, "he must be caught very young and kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions". Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs in Canada in 1920, once on record stated his wish to get rid of the “Indian problem”. He believed that the country should not continuously protect a class of people capable of standing alone and stated the objective to continue until there is not a single ‘Indian’ in Canada left unassimilated.
Over 150,000 children, 4 to 16 year-olds, attended the 139 schools identified within the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. However, several other schools funded by the provincial government and/or religious orders were not included in the IRS Settlement.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported the horrendous mistreatment of the indigenous children at the institutions. It stated the death of at least 3,200 children amid abuse and neglect between 1915 and 1963 with 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone. The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969 under the Catholic Church. Later, the federal government operated it as a day school until its closure in 1978.
On 29th May, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, 215 pairs of children's shoes along with candles, toys, flowers, and messages of condolences carefully laid across the gallery's steps were displayed as a tribute. This was organized by artist Tamara Bell whose mother also attended a residential school. After learning of the heart-wrenching discovery, she reached out to her network for assistance in compiling the memorial.
Terry Teegee, the regional chief for British Colombia in the Assembly of First Nations rightly stated that this would resurface the issue of residential schools and the wounds from this legacy of genocide towards Indigenous people. One cannot grasp the sheer scope of the lives lost.
This article has been written by Ruchi Thakur for The Paradigm
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