The latest horror story in the news is the grim discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The discovery didn’t come as a big surprise to those familiar with the sorry history of the residential school system.
The federal government took on the responsibility of Indigenous education in the 1880s, opening the first residential school in 1883. The intent was, through education, to replace First Nation culture and language values with European values. Indian, Inuit, and Métis children were to be “civilized” and “Christianized.”
Christian churches were hired to operate the schools. Indigenous values should have been replaced within a few generations. They weren’t.
It was bad enough wrenching youngsters (age 4 to 16) from their homes and shoving them into a totally strange environment, but it was a harsh, unfriendly environment. The children were not treated well.
The assimilation experiment didn’t work. The residential schools messed up several generations of students, but the Indigenous people survived along with their culture and languages. Every political party and major religious denomination had either supported or at least condoned the system, and it took 100 years for the powers that be to admit something was amiss.
By the late 1990s the government had closed all the 139 schools (including the Cariboo’s St. Joseph’s Mission) and had acknowledged the abuses suffered by former students by instituting the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to make amends. Part of that agreement is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Authorities are lining up agencies to deal with the Kamloops discovery. Along with determining who the children were and where they came from, the investigators need to find out when and how they died. Only full knowledge will clear up the speculations. All school sites across Canada should be investigated.
Diana French is a freelance columnist for the Tribune. She is a former Tribune editor, retired teacher, historian and book author.