On Friday, June 4, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported the discovery of unmarked graves with the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. This horrific discovery has shocked the nation and led to an outpouring of sympathy, grief, and anger. How could this have happened?
And yet, the harsh and inhuman conditions in these institutions were first reported over a century ago. In 1907, a report by the federal chief medical officer, Peter Henderson Bryce, exposed the horrific way in which the children were treated. He estimated that in some residential schools, more than half of the children may have died. If this is true, tens of thousands of Indigenous children may lie buried in mass and unmarked graves across Canada.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Report bluntly stated that the institutions were “a systemic government sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”
Some will say that times have changed and that Indigenous peoples are now much better treated by the federal government. But the lack of clean drinking water in so many Indigenous communities, a fundamental right, is yet another indication of the general lack of interest by the government in providing adequate funding and resources for First Nation communities.
The role of Egerton Ryerson in developing the residential school system has long been known. For Ryerson, Indigenous people were little more than savages. Residential schools would “convert them to Christianity, in order to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture”. The aim was simply to drive the First Nations into extinction.
In most societies, abusing and murdering children is rightly seen as the most heinous form of criminality. The era of the residential schools is a shameful chapter in Canadian history; the response of the federal government should be forceful and swift.
There are likely many more unmarked graves containing the bodies of Indigenous children. The government needs to find them and return these remains to their communities.
Additionally, we call upon the government to use fewer platitudes and to act swiftly on promises made regarding Indigenous peoples. For one, the swift passage of Bill- C15. It is critical that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) be legislated in Canada. In 2016, Canada officially adopted and promised to implement the declaration fully.
Neighbours for the Planet joins with other environmental groups in Ontario and across Canada in expressing outrage and sorrow at the way thousands of Indigenous children were grossly abused under a federally managed system that can only be described as institutional genocide.