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Long buried truths emerging

Unmarked graves of aboriginal people who died in government care a disgrace

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Among the many euphemisms we have constructed to describe dying is the idea that in death we lose a loved one or a part of ourselves. It is an apt description of the pain that takes hold -- a life is "lost" to us.Imagine the anguish if it were literally true, if a loved one vanishes without a trace. There is no rite of passage, and no physical place to unload the sorrow.

So the anguish carries on.

In Canada, there are hundreds of graves, unmarked and overgrown, holding the remains of thousands of "lost" souls. The grave sites are the resting places of so many aboriginal people who died after being forcibly taken from their families by government policy, to residential schools for assimilation or to urban hospitals when disease overwhelmed rudimentary medical care in Canada's rural or remote areas.

Many, and perhaps most, of the burial sites are nearly obliterated by the passage of time and bereft of markers. They sit like pockmarks on Canada's conscience.

The story of the abuse, neglect and indignity inflicted by government policy is erupting finally into the national consciousness.

My colleague Jen Skerritt did a terrific job in Wednesday's paper documenting the pain of First Nations families who saw loved ones lifted out of their communities for treatment of tuberculosis in Manitoba sanitoriums.

I was struck by the similarities of that story to the tales I heard last spring from residents of the Eastern Arctic communities of Rankin Inlet and Arviat whose loved ones, killed in a Northern Manitoba plane crash in 1949, were buried in a mass, unmarked grave at the nearby Norway House reserve. The seven Inuit passengers, on their way to polio treatment in Winnipeg, were the only ones of the 20 Canadians aboard the plane whose bodies were not transported back to their home towns for burial. All others were non-aboriginal.

Canada was quick to assert its authority and responsibilty to "rescue" the sick, but its humanity had limits. In death, a body became an inconvenience.

How many died in government "care" remains to be documented -- the story yet untold from Canada's sorry history of inhumane treatment of indigenous people, a local historian told me. They were buried in fields adjoining schools, or municipal cemeteries. Most of those schools have been torn down and the plots forgotten and grown over.

One cemetery used by the United Church residential school in Brandon is in private hands now, part of a trailer park, a private researcher hired by the church told me.

Government policy deemed as unacceptable the expense of transporting bodies back to their families.

It has yet to be documented exactly how many children, for example, died while attending 145 residential schools across Canada (but mostly in the West) from the late 1800s until the late 1960s when most were closed.

Justice Murray Sinclair, in a recent address at the University of Winnipeg, gave a compelling description of how impotent the parents and community leaders were when their children were forced into Christian schools for assimilation starting in 1870s, long before education became compulsory in Canada. Parents had been stripped by federal law of the right to protest or resort to the court, noted Sinclair, now the chairman of the national Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission. First Nations parents could be forbidden to visit their children, requiring a pass to leave the reserve from the very Indian agents that gathered and transported children to the schools.

When the kids died, they were buried by the schools without notice to the families left to wonder why they never came home.

But the dead often don't stay down and people are starting to ask questions. Skeletons are beginning to poke up through the soil of their ignominious resting grounds. Graves, forgotten and unrecorded, are being bulldozed for development and the truth is emerging. The protests and outrage, ever legitimate but today abundantly legal, of the people are being heard.

The clamour to find the graves, to identify the remains and repatriate them to their family lands is growing. I encourage all Canadians to join in the campaign for a reconciliation past due.

It will be tough because little care, not surprisingly, was paid to the details of burials, plots and cemeteries. Records, where they existed, were lost and the unmarked graves have been reclaimed by the elements. Forgotten, except by some loved ones who spent a lifetime wondering.

The search for the remains is part of the debt Canada owes to make amends for a history of institutionalized abuse against indigenous people, to set right the denial of basic decency to those often regarded as something less civilized.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2009 A14

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