After the unearthed mass graves containing the remains of 215 children, the emotion is alive in Canada and particularly in the native communities. The discovery was announced at the end of the week by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community. These remains were spotted by an expert using geo-radar at the site of a former Catholic residential school in British Columbia.
Establishments, created over a century ago, which aimed to remove indigenous children from their communities and assimilate them into the dominant culture. Some 150,000 Native American, Métis and Inuit children have been forcibly placed in more than 130 residential schools across the country, cut off from their families, language and culture. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called this system “cultural genocide“.
Now, Indigenous communities in Canada are demanding a nationwide search for mass graves. For Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, families “deserve to know the truth and the possibility of healing“. “Thorough Investigation of All Former Residential School Sites May Lead to More Truths About Genocide Against Our People“said Perry Bellegarde.
An enterprise of forced assimilation
The history of native abuse in North America is almost as old as that of the colonization of North America by Europeans. The early colonizers believed that the original inhabitants of the New Continent were inferior to them. “Savages” parked in reserves, which had to be civilized. And of course to evangelize. In reality, only one goal: to assimilate them, to educate them like white people.
In this process, the residential school system in Canada lasted from 1831 to 1996.
►►► Read also : Australia, Canada, United States, New Zealand: what approach do these countries have towards their indigenous peoples?
The children found last week were students at Kamloops Indian Residential School, British Columbia, which closed in 1978. These schools were run by government and religious authorities during the 19th and 20th centuries with the goal of ” assimilate indigenous youth by force.
Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest of all. Opened under the administration of the Roman Catholic Church in 1890, the school had up to 500 students when enrollment peaked in the 1950s. The federal government took over management of the school in 1969, as a residence for students until 1978, when it was closed.
The first boarding school opened in 1831 in Ontario, and very quickly, these establishments multiplied across Canada. Strength comes first: young indigenous people are taken from their families. Confiscated from the age of 4 or 5, and often taken away from home so that they cannot regain their reserve. To deprive them of contact with their loved ones. For months or years.
The children are renamed, they frequently receive European names and learn French or English. Prohibition to use mother tongue even between brothers and sisters. Christian religion and Western clothing is required. It is “to kill the Indian in the child“.
An iron discipline is imposed on them, with as a corollary, psychological and physical abuse. Beatings, sexual abuse, but also cold, loneliness, forced labor, disease and malnutrition.
But in the 1950s, we had to face the facts: the policy of assimilation failed. And the abuses denounced. It is the beginning of the closure of the residential schools. On the 150,000 children who have been there in 165 years, 4,134 die there: fires, epidemics, runaways but also suicides. A high proportion: 1 in 50.
Reread the story
An apology was offered to Native Americans for all of this, by Bishop Michael Peers in 1993: “I am sorry, even more than I can formulate it, that we tried to remake you in our image, by taking your language, and the signs of your identity “. Then by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, with another request for forgiveness from his successor Justin Trudeau in 2015. Pope Francis, questioned by the latter, refrained from responding.
Financial compensation was also paid to the victims, billions of dollars. And finally a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 2008. Its 2015 final report designates residential schools as agents of First Nations cultural genocide and specifies that considerable state commitment is necessary to promote equality of opportunity and envision true reconciliation.
But a sign of the resentment that still exists in Canada towards its colonial history, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a statue of former Prime Minister John A. Macdonald has been removed. Protesters responding to the slogan “Our children matter too ! “, reproach him for his role at the time. This is not the first statue of one who is considered a founding father of Canada. A 2013 book,” The Destruction of the Plains Indians “, by James Daschulk, describes its policy as “ethnocide“, especially through this forced assimilation of Amerindian children in residential schools.
Indigenous communities want to shed light on this part of Canada’s history, and ask that other sites be excavated in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Linc Kesler, director of UBC’s First Nations Learning House, believes the type of radar technology used by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation could reveal more physical evidence of the horrors of residential schools across Canada : “This is absolutely not an isolated incident“.
Historians also want controls, but also want to preserve these sites: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Center for History and Dialogue on Residential Schools at the University of British Columbia (UBC), believes they should be protected: “We need to make sure they are vetted and protected so that full investigations can be carried out“
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged aid without specifying its nature: “As a father, I can’t imagine what it would be like to see me take my children away. “, said Justin Trudeau. “And as Prime Minister, I am appalled by the shameful policies that have robbed indigenous children from their communities. “