There’s more to come, much more. If there’s one sure thing about the discovery of 215 unmarked, unidentified graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., that’s it.
It was plain from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 that only the barest details were known about how many bodies of Indigenous children lie in anonymous graves across the country.
At the Kamloops school, for example, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented the names of 51 young students buried on the grounds. But now we know that far more bodies lie there, and if the pattern is repeated at the sites of other one-time residential schools the numbers may well run into the thousands.
Of course the federal government should agree to the demand of Indigenous leaders for a thorough search to locate those graves, document the names, memorialize them and return the remains to families and communities. Any human being deserves at least that much, and it’s a disgrace that Canada is only now getting around to this task.
In fact, six of the commission’s 94 “calls for action” dealt with exactly this issue; they urged a national registry of gravesites, identification of the children who died while attending residential schools, return of remains and appropriate markers. Six years later, we’re still waiting. The federal government even earmarked $33 million for just this purpose in 2019, but it seems little progress has been made.
The minimum this country can do is to get that job done. Nothing can change the neglect and abuse that was meted out to the 150,000 Indigenous children who were put through the residential school system. But at least the insult of being consigned to unmarked and long-untended graves can be addressed and Indigenous communities can reclaim the remains of their lost children. It’s something.
Indigenous leaders have pointed out that while the Kamloops discovery is shocking, it’s hardly surprising. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission devoted an entire volume of its final report to “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials”; it’s available online to anyone who wants to understand that dark chapter of Canada’s history.
And the commission itself relied on evidence that goes back well over a century. As long ago as 1907 Canadian newspapers were running front-page stories about appalling conditions at residential schools. They detailed how “Indian boys and girls are dying like flies” of neglect, mistreatment and illness at rates far higher than the general population. This isn’t a recent revelation.
The stories, though, came and went. No one in power cared; certainly no one cared enough to do anything about it. They wouldn’t pay for decent food, safe buildings or adequate medical care; indeed, they wouldn’t even pay to send the bodies of dead children back to their families, and so put them in those unmarked graves.
The question now is whether the latest stories will just come and go, leaving behind the remnants of sad memorials featuring flowers and tiny shoes.
The Catholic Church, for one, which operated the Kamloops school for most of its history, still hasn’t taken full responsibility for its role in running residential schools. Pope Francis, a champion of social justice in so many other areas, won’t apologize for past wrongs, apparently on the advice of his Canadian bishops. He should end his silence on this issue.
The Trudeau government must redouble its efforts to fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations on accounting for missing children. The need to consult widely cannot be allowed to turn into an excuse for inaction.
This may not be the biggest issue facing Indigenous peoples. There’s a host of problems that have more impact on daily lives, such as ensuring clean water supplies on all reserves, addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system, and returning control over child welfare to First Nations communities.
But all those problems have their roots in a past shaped by the legacy of residential schools. Giving the lost children and their communities the basic dignity of being rescued from an anonymous death is an important part of confronting that history.