How could anyone not feel devastated upon hearing of 215 dead and buried children, all in one place, on the grounds of a former school near Kamloops in B.C.’s southern interior?
If it had been a school for white children it’s hard to imagine that so many students would have died and simply been buried in the back garden rather than returned to their families.
But this was an Indian Residential School (IRS) as they are now commonly known, so none of so-called civilized society’s accepted standards of human decency applied.
In reality, these were prisons for children; children who were treated as a looming threat to that so-called civilized society. Children forcibly taken from their parents and then forced to remain in the custody of institutions managed by various Christian denominations and paid to do so by the federal government.
This particular “school” was operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order of priests who were assisted by various orders of Catholic nuns. It was established in 1890 and closed down in 1978.
How on Earth in all that time could anyone who worked there or had any responsibility for the place not be aware that dozens of children had died in their care and were buried nearby? Did they believe this was simply the way things were? Nothing to be done? And how many more children are buried in the back gardens of other “schools” without grave markers, without any thought of notifying their families? How is that in any way Christian?
Most of these institutions were in Western and Northern Canada. Alberta had 25, the most of any province or territory, followed by B.C. at 18.
It was no coincidence that our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, established these federally funded institutions just as the western half of the country was being linked to the east by the railway that eventually brought a rush of settlers wanting to farm their own piece of land, or hoping to set up enterprises, such as a lumber mill or a general store.
At the time, the Indigenous peoples on the Prairies were already in dire straits due to disease, the extermination of the buffalo and treaties that confined them to specific territories, territories that were much smaller than their accustomed hunting grounds.
Forcing Indigenous children into “schools” and then training them to be ashamed of their parents and the only life they had ever known was cruel; yet one more way to crush Indigenous peoples so they wouldn’t be a bother to incoming settlers.
Those acts of cruelty and injury, painfully revealed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were committed by individuals on a daily basis. They may have believed their work was all in aid of a noble cause — whether that be Christianity, or British Imperialism, or the Victorian idea of progress — but how did they justify their cruelty to children? And why were no individuals held accountable when kids died or disappeared?
In 1991, the Oblates issued a formal apology for their participation in the residential school system. But while recognizing the harm done, they also emphasized the “good intentions” of the “naïve” missionaries.
Since when does naivité excuse cruelty and criminal behaviour?
And while the Anglican Church, United Church, and Presbyterian Church have all issued formal apologies for their participation in the residential school system, the present head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, and his most recent predecessors have not. Neither has the Catholic Church offered any financial compensation for the harm it caused through its decades long participation in the residential school system.
If ever there was a time to reconsider that decision this is it. Perhaps it could start by paying the costs of unearthing and identifying children buried at all their residential schools; because in the end, apologies, words of regret and sorrow are just talk.
Real reconciliation requires much more. It requires action, making amends, repairing what was damaged and giving back what was taken.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made dozens of concrete recommendations that could take us down that path, but as dozens of dead children are unearthed and the dreadful truth of their suffering comes to light, reconciliation seems a long way off.
Gillian Steward is a Calgary-based writer and freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @GillianSteward