UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional comment from the community of ʔaq̓ am.
Another 182 unmarked graves have been confirmed near a former Catholic-run residential school site—the latest in a series of findings that support what Indigenous peoples have been saying for decades, while setting off public outrage across Canada.
Last year, the community of ʔaq̓ am, near Cranbrook, British Columbia, used ground penetrating radar to investigate a site close to the former Catholic-run St. Eugene’s Mission School after finding an unknown and unmarked grave during remedial work at the community’s cemetery, a statement from ʔaq̓ am says.
The search revealed 182 human remains in unmarked graves, with some of the remains buried in shallow graves only about three to four feet deep. The investigation was conducted at the request of elders to ensure preservation of ancestral remains, ʔaq̓ am said.
“This was a deeply disturbing and painful experience for our elders and community as a whole,” the statement reads.
While the findings are tragic, ʔaq̓ am said it’s too early to confirm whether the remains are of children forced to attend St. Eugene’s. The cemetery in the area was built by settlers in 1865 and many people who died at the nearby, now-defunct St. Eugene hospital were buried there. The community didn’t start burying ancestors at the cemetery until the late 1800s.
ʔaq̓ am also needs to rule out erosion of grave markings.
“Graves were traditionally marked with wooden crosses and this practice continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada,” according to the statement. “Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire which can result in an unmarked grave.”
“These factors, among others, make it extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children.”
ʔaq̓ am said it’s committed to identifying as many graves as possible and memorializing all unknown graves so that “no soul is truly forgotten.”
“The issue of the remains of children victimized in residential schools and buried in unmarked graves is of great concern” ʔaq̓am said, adding that it urges surrounding Nations and the co-owners of the St. Eugene Resort to collaborate during the investigation. (The former residential school building is now a resort.)
St. Eugene’s Mission School ran from 1912 until the early 1970s, with hundreds of students from Ktunaxa Nation and neighbouring communities forced to attend.
In a statement to VICE World News from Lower Kootenay Band, the Band said 100 Lower Kootenay Band members alone were forced to attend.
“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member Bands of the Ktunaxa nation, neighbouring First Nations communities, and the community of aqam,” the statement says. Lower Kootenay Band is a member of Ktunaxa Nation.
“All Indigenous children ages 7 to 15 were required by law to attend residential school where many Indigenous children received cruel and sometimes fatal treatment.”
Residential schools were used by the Canadian government to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children, starting in the 1830s. More than half were run by the Catholic Church. Students were systematically stripped away from their families and communities and forced to attend residential schools, where they were often punished for speaking their Indigenous languages or expressing their identities. The last residential school didn’t close until the late 90s.
The news out of Ktunaxa nation is only the latest confirmation of unmarked graves and many more are expected. On Friday, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan confirmed an estimated 751 unmarked graves at a former school, while last month Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed 215, which spearheaded a country-wide search for unmarked graves and lost loved ones. Additional sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were also confirmed this month.
Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, representing 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said he expects hundreds more unmarked graves.
“Sadly, this is just the beginning,” Cameron said. “There are thousands of families across our Treaty territories that have been waiting for their children to come home.”
While the sites support what Indigenous peoples have been saying all along, the news is triggering. Indigenous leaders are urging their communities to seek support, if needed. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society has a hotline available 24-7.
Across Canada, calls are mounting for the country and the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for crimes against humanity and genocide, and many life-long Catholics are considering leaving the church altogether. Various churches have been burned or defaced in the past month. The latest fire was reported on Wednesday, after St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church was found ablaze in Sipekne'katik First Nation. RCMP are treating it as suspicious. Four churches in B.C. and two in Alberta have also been found on fire, and RCMP say they’re considering all of the fires throughout their investigations.
Many, including the city of Victoria, are also boycotting Canada Day, citing the country’s historic and ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples as reasons not to celebrate. In Toronto, the CN Tower will be lit orange on Canada Day in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, instead of the expected light show.
“The recent discovery of over 1300-plus unmarked graves of Indigenous children at residential ‘schools’ reminds us that Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations, including children. We refuse to sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated,” says a statement from Idle No More, an Indigenous right movement.
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Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.