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Rights of Indigenous People in Canada: 215 Indigenous Children’s Remains Found at Residential School

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Marcel Man



A few weeks ago, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations found 215 Indigenous children’s remains in unmarked graves at a former Indian residential school in British Columbia, Canada. The institution, located in the city of Kamloops, was in fact the largest residential school in Canadian history, and was run by the Catholic Church and the Canadian government. These 215 Indigenous children were snatched from their homes, treated inhumanely at the institution, and never had the opportunity to return home. When they died, they were simply buried with no identity. The youngest of the children is believed to be at the age of 3.[1]


While the tragic discovery was shocking, it was not the most surprising to the Canadian Indigenous community. In fact, Indian residential schools were first established by the government of Canada in the 1880s to colonize and assimilate Indigenous culture into Euro-Canadian society.[2] These children would be forcefully taken away from their families and placed in these residential schools that strictly prohibited them from speaking their mother tongue and practicing their cultural beliefs. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, giving residential school survivors a voice to be heard, provided insight into the human rights violations inflicted upon Indigenous students along with their families by residential schools. The violations they suffered include being physically and sexually abused, starved, tortured, and even killed. The estimated number of children torn away from their families and forced into residential schools was more than 150,000 until the establishments closed down in 1997.[3] As per usual when it comes to past atrocities by the government, there is no documentation that shows the precise statistics of abusive treatment and death at these residential schools. The trauma from these human rights violations continues to pass on to subsequent generations, but it is the discovery of 215 nameless graves at the former Kamloops Residential School that really shone a light on how prevalent the effects of historical oppression still are to this day. A residential school survivor, Frank Côté comments on his lack of surprise, noting that “there were kids who passed away and never made it home, and [he] thinks they’re going to find more when they look at all the other residential schools that existed”.[4]


Special rapporteurs selected by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations have addressed this tragic finding. They have urged Canada and the Catholic Church to hold accountability for their roles in residential schools and properly investigate the circumstances resulting in the 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School.[5] Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister of Canada, also gave an official statement regarding his disapproval of “the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities”.[6] He acknowledges that this tragedy was not “an exception or an isolated incident”,[7] since Canada did force Indigenous children into Indian residential schools as a form of cultural genocide. While he considers discovering more unmarked graves as an integral part of finding out the truth, he did not commit to any specific action.


Reconciliation in Canada has been in effect to address the violations caused by the Canadian government to the Indigenous communities, yet it still fails to resolve the discrimination that is imprinted in the Canadian system. Current Canadian legislation and laws still put their self-interest over the rights of the Indigenous people. In many instances, the government prioritizes economic benefits to build pipelines on aboriginal land despite the many protests.[8] While schools in Canada have made an effort to teach students about the mistreatment of the Aboriginals with textbooks, the 215 Indigenous children’s remains are a cold hard reminder that these atrocities are deep-rooted in Canadian history, and that the government needs to acknowledge their wrongdoings and provide Indigenous families with answers.


 

Image: ‘Honouring the 215 Indigenous children’ (350.org, 1 June 2021) <https://350.org/honouring-the-215/> accessed 11 June 2021

[1] Holly Honderich, ‘Why Canada is mourning the deaths of 215 children’ BBC News (3 June 2021) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57325653> accessed 10 June 2021

[2] J.R. Miller, ‘Residential Schools in Canada’ (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 10 October 2012) <https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools> accessed 10 June 2021

[3] ‘A history of residential schools in Canada’ CBC News (16 May 2008) <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-history-of-residential-schools-in-canada-1.702280> accessed 10 June 2021

[4] ‘Residential school survivors in Kitigan Zibi saddened but not surprised by news from B.C.’ CBC News (2 June 2021)<https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/kamloops-residential-school-survivors-kitigan-zibi-algonquin-1.6049980> accessed 10 June 2021

[5] Maan Alhmidi, ‘UN human rights experts call on Canada to investigate residential school burial sites’ CTV News (4 June 2021) <https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/un-human-rights-experts-call-on-canada-to-investigate-residential-school-burial-sites-1.5456404> accessed 10 June 2021

[6] Rob Gillies, ‘Trudeau: Bodies at Indigenous School Not Isolated Incident’ Time (1 June 2021) <https://time.com/6053017/canada-indigenous-school/> accessed 10 June 2021

[7] ibid

[8] ‘Indigenous pipeline blockades spark Canada-wide protests’ BBC News (11 February 2020) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51452217> accessed 11 June 2021

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