TORONTO — For the second time in less than a month, a First Nation in Canada reported grim news: Ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves near a former residential school for Indigenous children.

The two discoveries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have left the country reeling. Many Canadians are renewing pleas to take down monuments to the leaders responsible for the school system and calling for more accountability and action from the federal government and the Catholic Church.

Among the Indigenous communities that had long told stories about the children who went missing and their unmarked graves, there has been fury and anger — but not shock.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said this week that the findings are “absolutely tragic, but not surprising.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What was the residential school system?
  • What are the recent findings?
  • How did children at residential schools die?
  • What has been the response from governments and the church?

What was the residential school system?

Residential schools were government-funded, often church-run boarding schools set up in the 19th century with the primary aim of assimilating Indigenous children.

The more than 130 schools spanned the country from coast-to-coast.

Among the system’s architects was Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, who explained the aim of the residential school system before the House of Commons in 1883:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages,” he said, “and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian.”

It had been “pressed” on him, he said, that Indigenous children should be withdrawn "from the parental influence” by putting them in schools "where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of White men.”

About 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to the schools, often forcibly, where they were barred from speaking their languages and practicing their traditions. Many faced physical and sexual abuse, according to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 2008 to investigate the schools.

Many schools began to close in the 1970s, but the last federally funded residential school closed in the 1990s.

The commission said in its 2015 report that what happened at the schools was akin to “cultural genocide.”

What are the recent findings?

In late May, Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia, said that a ground-penetrating radar specialist had uncovered evidence of at least 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The school, which was once the largest in Canada, operated from 1890 to 1969, mostly under the administration of a Catholic group called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In 1969, the federal government took over operations and ran it as a residence for students attending a day school until 1978, when it closed.

Casimir said the findings were preliminary and a report would be released this month.

China called for an investigation on June 22 into the discovery of the remains of indigenous children in Canada at the site of a former boarding school. (Reuters)

This week, Cadmus Delorme, chief of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, said the group had found indications of at least 751 unmarked graves near the ground of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

The school was founded in the 1890s by Catholic missionaries. The federal government began funding the school in 1901 and took over its administration in 1969 before turning it over to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987. It closed in the 1990s.

Delorme said the gravesite was established in 1886 by Catholic groups; it is not known whether all of the unmarked graves contain the remains of children; and some adults might also be buried there, as well.

How did children at residential schools die?

Though many non-Indigenous Canadians have been surprised by the findings, it was no secret that children at residential schools died and were buried in unmarked graves.

The commission devoted a substantial section of its report to the topic. It identified more than 3,200 children who died at the schools, a figure that has since grown and is a higher death rate than for school-aged children in the general population.

Children died of diseases, including tuberculosis, which spread rapidly in the unsanitary buildings and among malnourished students. Others died in accidents, in fires or by suicide. Some disappeared while running away.

Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he heard testimony from survivors who recalled infants — born to young girls and fathered by priests — being deliberately killed.

To save money, children were often buried in unmarked graves on or near school grounds.

Officials said it might be impossible to determine the total number of children who died at the schools, in part because of shoddy record-keeping and because several church entities have not disclosed all of their records. In many cases, school and government records did not include name, sex or cause of death.

What has been the response from governments and the church?

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for residential schools. Years earlier, the federal government settled a class-action lawsuit with residential school survivors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015 promising to put reconciliation with Indigenous people at the heart of his government’s agenda and pledged to implement the 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which included making residential schools a part of school curriculums and reducing the amount of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.

But some Indigenous people have criticized the pace of progress on the file.

In the weeks since the finding in Kamloops, the government has made some progress in addressing a few of those calls to action, including by passing legislation that would harmonize Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

The federal government also said it would urgently distribute about $22 million to help Indigenous groups find unmarked graves, identify the missing and commemorate them. The funding was part of $28 million set aside for those purposes in the 2019 federal budget.

Several provinces have also provided funding for these searches.

The Pope has come under mounting pressure to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. Some Catholic orders that ran the schools and leaders of the Anglican and United churches in Canada, which also operated schools, have apologized. Pope Francis has not.

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