The discovery of the remains of First Nations children incites both symbolic responses and a push to uncover more sites

The Catholic Church has refused to apologize for its role in the Kamloops school or any of the other schools it ran in Canada where Indigenous children were inflicted with horrible conditions and abuse that would be felt for generations.

Warning: This article contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.

Just last night, on June 23, the Cowessess First Nation discovered 751 more unmarked graves were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential school in Saskatchewan. However, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Belegard says that they had suspected there would be graves in the area.

“The news that hundreds of unmarked graves have been found in Cowessess First Nation is absolutely tragic, but not surprising,” he said, “I urge all Canadians to stand with First Nations in this extremely difficult and emotional time.”

This is less than a month after the remains of 215 children were discovered on the site of the Kamloops Industrial School in British Columbia. 

Hundreds of Indigenous children had been forced out of their homes and sent to this school, along with over 130 other such schools across Canada. The discovery was a stark reminder of Canada’s dark history of residential schools, which a nationwide Truth and Reconciliation Commision in 2015 declared amounted to cultural genocide against Indigenous people. Residential schools, where many First Nations children suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of the religious organizations who ran them, devastated First Nations communities. Their multigenerational effects continue to be felt today.

The Kamloops Residential school was one of the largest in the country. It was run by the Catholic church.

The Squamish Nation and the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation (formerly known as the Kamloops Indian Band) released a joint statement to mourn the deaths of the children, and calling for action to carry out the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation to identify all cemeteries, residential school sites, and unmarked graves at which Indigenous children have been buried. 

The majority of these graves are being discovered through a ground penetrating radar. This device looks similar to an everyday lawnmower, and uses high frequency electromagnetic waves to detect turned soil. The use of this device means that more discoveries and information can be unearthed with relative ease.

Pope Francis had already declined to apologize for the actions of the Catholic Church when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for such an apology in 2015. 

Former Tk’emlups te Secwepemc chief Manny Jules says he is still waiting for that apology.

A letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops mentioned that the Pope would not be apologizing. 

“I think it is shameful that it hasn’t been done to date,” said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. “There is a responsibility that lies squarely on the shoulders.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a statement on Twitter saying that the news breaks his heart, and acknowledging the “dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.” 

However, many Twitter users pointed out that Trudeau did not mention anything about the current issues against Indigenous people. Some Indigenous reserves do not have clean drinking water, and Trudeau hasn’t mentioned anything about other residential school sites.

In memory of the Indigenous children, Canadian artist Tamara Bell created a large memorial. This memorial included 215 pairs of shoes left on the steps of the Vancouver Art Museum. 

Many people have also made their own memorials on their lawns or houses. In one area of a suburb of Vancouver there are many small memorials featuring orange shirts–a reference to a day of remembrance for the victims of residential schools–and flowers, with signs saying: Every Child Matters. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered all flags to be raised to half mast. Some people have even repainted their cars to match the symbolic orange color.

Earlier this month protesters at Toronto’s Ryerson University tore down a large statue of Egerton Ryerson, who the school was named after. Ryerson was partially credited to starting the residential school system. The statue was covered in spray paint with messages such as, “Shame” and “Dig them up,” while a petition circulated to remove it.

Before the university decided how to respond, protestors tore the statue down.

Many expect more such unmarked mass graves to be discovered in the coming weeks and months as efforts to find the sites continue.

Cover Image: Norman Baxter

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