More than 200 bodies found at Indigenous school in Canada

  • A plaque is seen outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on Thursday. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press via AP)

KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (AP) — The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, have been found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school — one of the institutions that held children taken from families across the nation.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a news release that the remains were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

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More bodies may be found because there are more areas to search on the school grounds.

In an earlier release, she called the discovery an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

The Canadian government apologized in Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages; they also lost touch with their parents and customs.

Indigenous leaders have cited that legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.

A report more than five years ago by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission said at least 3,200 children had died amid abuse and neglect, and it said it had reports of at least 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone between 1915 and 1963.

“This really resurfaces the issue of residential schools and the wounds from this legacy of genocide towards Indigenous people,” Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Colombia, said Friday.

The remains were detected and not exhumed. Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner in British Columbia, said it was advised by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc on Thursday about the discovery of a burial site located adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“We are early in the process of gathering information and will continue to work collaboratively with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and others as this sensitive work progresses,” Lapointe said

The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

Casimir said it’s believed the deaths are undocumented, although a local museum archivist is working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.

“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” Casimir said in the initial release issued late Thursday.

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The leadership of the Tk’emlups community “acknowledges their responsibility to caretake for these lost children,” Casimir said.

Access to the latest technology allows for a true accounting of the missing children and will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost, she said in the release.

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