The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An unmarked gravesite drags a not-so-distant horror back into the spotlight. Is this a real reckoning?

Drummers line the front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to welcome a group of runners from the Syilx Okanagan Nation this month following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried near the facility in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)
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BRANTFORD, Ontario — It was Dawn Hill’s first night at the Mohawk Institute here, one of the more than 130 residential schools established in Canada to assimilate Indigenous children, and she and her sister were afraid.

Away from their home on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reserve, crammed into a dormitory with dozens of girls who were strangers, the 7- and 6-year-olds turned to the familiar: each other. Roberta crawled into Dawn’s bed.

Before long, a housemother at the school was punishing them for it. Armed with a leather belt, she strapped the girls three times on each arm, leaving big welts from the crooks of their arms to their fingertips.

“That was our introduction to the ‘Mush Hole’ life,” said Hill, now 71, using the name students gave the school, for the gruel they were served. “We were always getting the strap … just for, to me, minor things that kids do normally — now that I see what normal kids do.”

The discovery of an unmarked burial site containing the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, announced last month by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, dragged the horror of Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people back into the spotlight — for the moment, at least.

Remains of 215 Indigenous children discovered at former Canadian residential school site

The preliminary findings reopened old wounds for residential-school survivors; the grief rippled across Canada. Flags were lowered. Requests piled up for searches at other former school sites, including the Mohawk Institute.

There were new calls for monuments to the architects of the system to be brought down. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has emphasized reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, was questioned about his progress. Pope Francis was pressed to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church. The city of Victoria, British Columbia, scrapped a virtual Canada Day event planned for July 1 to provide an “opportunity for thoughtful reflection and examination of what it means to be Canadian.”

The question is whether Canada has reached a watershed moment, the beginning of a real reckoning with its past. Or is that opportunity already beginning to recede again, as the country focuses on getting vaccines into arms, recoils from a “hate motivated” truck attack that left four Muslims dead — and moves on, as it often does.

Ry Moran, a former director of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, said he is “very hopeful that this is a turning point.” But progress won’t be easy, he said, and “there will be other events in our future that will continue to both shock this country and further refute this idea that Canada is a bastion of human rights.”

Ryerson University sociologist Eva Jewell, a member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, is less optimistic.

“I have to say maybe there’s a cautious hope, because that’s all we can have,” she said. “But there’s not really, on my part anyway, faith that this is going to change unless there is institutional change and policy within the Canadian government.”

Activists in Canada topple statue, demand apology from pope amid reckoning over death of Indigenous children at residential schools

Beginning in the 19th century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were sent, often by force, to government-funded, mostly church-run boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their languages and practicing their traditions. Many were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. The last school closed in 1996. The multigenerational trauma has lingered.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that what happened at the schools constituted “cultural genocide.”

In 2008, Stephen Harper, then Canada’s prime minister, formally apologized for residential schools. Trudeau, his successor, pledged to implement the commission’s calls to action.

The news from Kamloops was met with shock among many non-Indigenous people. But it was no secret that Indigenous children died at the schools or that they were buried in unmarked graves.

Peter Henderson Bryce, a chief medical officer of the Department of Indian Affairs, warned in a 1907 report that a large number of children were dying at the schools, often from tuberculosis, and living in unsanitary conditions.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission devoted much of its report to the topic. Several of its recommendations deal with mapping the burial sites and compiling a register of the missing children.

“The fact that this information is not making it to Canadians is actually indicative of the poor response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action,” said Jewell, who is descended from residential-school survivors. “It’s very, very telling that Canadians are shocked right now.”

The commission identified some 3,200 children who died at the schools, a figure that has since grown. It said that the death rate of Indigenous children was higher than that of non-Indigenous children and that the total number of deaths might never be known.

Children died of disease, malnourishment, in accidents, in fires or by suicide. Some vanished while running away. Often, their bodies weren’t sent back to their families, to save money.

“Subjected to institutionalized child neglect in life, they have been dishonored in death,” the commission said.

Thousands of Canada’s Indigenous children died in church-run boarding schools. Where are they buried?

In many cases, officials did not record the name or sex of the student or the cause of death. Some deaths weren’t recorded at all. That’s left families haunted by wrenching questions about the fate of children who never returned.

Some answers might be found in records from the Catholic entities and orders that ran most of the schools, including the one in Kamloops. But Murray Sinclair, who chaired the commission, told a parliamentary committee this month that some of those records still haven’t been shared.

Government officials have said there might be legal avenues that they could pursue to compel their disclosure, but they’ve given no indication that they’re willing to go down that road.

J. Michael Miller, the Catholic archbishop of Vancouver, said the archdiocese would be “fully transparent” with its archives and would “strongly urge” other church groups to do the same.

“These are actually quite simple issues to fix if there’s a willingness to disclose information,” Moran said. “To date, we’ve seen a reluctance. Hopefully, the events of the last two weeks have brought into much more clear focus … why this information is vitally important.”

The Catholic Church has faced mounting pressure to offer a formal apology for its role in the residential-school system. Several Catholic entities and some local church leaders have apologized. But the pope, unlike the leaders of the Anglican and United churches of Canada, has not.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said last week that it plans to take a delegation of Indigenous people, including survivors, to meet Francis this year on a visit “to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”

Trudeau, who is Catholic, made a personal appeal to Pope Francis for an apology in 2017, to no avail. But the Liberal Party leader, who promised “concrete action” and “transformative change” after the Kamloops discovery, has faced criticism for his own government’s response.

In its 2020 report card, the Assembly of First Nations found that only “little” or “moderate” progress had been made on most calls to action. A report card co-authored by Jewell is less generous.

Amid the outcry over the unmarked burial site, the government fast-tracked two bills that address some calls to action. One creates a statutory holiday to acknowledge the legacy of residential schools. The other amends Canada’s citizenship oath to include a “solemn promise” to respect the treaty rights of Indigenous people.

The government also said it would urgently distribute roughly $22 million to help Indigenous groups find unmarked graves, to identify the missing and to commemorate them. The funding was part of $28 million over three years set aside in the 2019 federal budget for those purposes, raising questions about why it took so long to make it available.

Hill said the pace of progress from Trudeau on reconciliation left her “kind of disappointed.”

“You want to help? Then let’s see some help. Real help,” she said. “Not speeches and sorry about this, sorry about that.”

Four Muslim family members in Canada killed in ‘targeted’ attack, police say

Systemic racism in many institutions in Canada has been under scrutiny.

A Quebec coroner wrapped up an inquest this month into the hospital death of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who was taunted by employees in a video that she live-streamed on Facebook. Several witnesses testified that staff members made racist comments about her.

Officials have also faced pressure to combat Islamophobia after four members of a Muslim family were killed in a hit-and-run last week in London, Ontario. Police said they were targeted because of their faith.

Children’s shoes and stuffed animals line the steps of what was once the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, a city 65 miles from Toronto, one of many such memorials that have sprouted across Canada in recent weeks.

The institute, the longest-operating residential school in Canada, closed in 1970. It’s now part of the Woodland Cultural Center, an education hub and museum, where classes in Indigenous languages are held in spaces where kids were once punished for speaking them.

Hill said her time at the school was marked by “total loneliness.” Once, she was so overcome by a sense that “things were never going to change” that she cried herself to sleep on a bench. Children were called by their numbers, not their names. Hers was 54.

Despite the horrors she experienced as a student, Hill would work for nearly three decades as a teacher.

“You make your way in life,” she said. “But you don’t forget.”

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