Every country has a closet full of skeletons hidden away by abusive people or governments in power. Slavery, the Holocaust and genocides are some examples. But when that country is yours and the bones belong to children, well, that’s unspeakable.
In May, the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Last week, 751 more were discovered near what used to be the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan. There is not one redeeming factor in the story of how they got there.
The colonization of Canada by early European settlers included taking the land of the Indigenous people and forcing them onto reserves. Then, in the late nineteenth century, the government decided it would be better for Indigenous children to learn English, adopt Christianity and erase their own culture. They forcibly ripped the children from their families and placed them in government-funded, church-run residential schools. Within a few generations, they thought, the Indigenous would be completely assimilated.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Imagine a government taking our children away from us on the assumption that they knew better than we did what was good for them. Now, imagine a child suddenly finding him or herself in a place filled with strangers speaking a strange language, far from anyone he/she loves without really understanding why. The sadness and despair must have been crushing for both children and parents.
Communication with the families was sparse. Children were only allowed to write in English, which their parents didn’t understand. They lived in sub-standard conditions, were often malnourished, neglected and abused physically, emotionally and sexually.
It’s estimated that 150,000 children were forced into the schools between the 1883 and 1996. A report by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, founded in 2008 with the mandate of informing all Canadians of what happened in residential schools, shows that 4,100 children died in the schools. Some think the number is as high as 10,000. They died in fires, from infectious diseases that ravaged the schools, accidents and while trying to escape and return to their families. Most of the time parents were given vague explanations or told they had run away.
One heartbreaking story is of four little boys between the ages of seven and nine. On January 1, 1937, they ran away from the Lejac Residential School in British Columbia and tried to make their way back home. When they didn’t show up for dinner, no one at the school investigated or notified anyone. The boys were found frozen to death the next day. It’s impossible to believe when children today are driven, like the precious cargo that they are, the few blocks from home-to-school in a heated car wearing warm clothing.
When the graves in Kamloops were discovered, images of children’s shoes came to symbolize their lost lives. Touching photos taken in cities across Canada of 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of schools, churches and other buildings as memorials began to appear online and in newspapers. There are bright red and yellow rain boots, sneakers of all colors, soft mukluk boots, moccasins and more. Each pair represents a life cut short.
To commemorate the children whose graves were found in Saskatchewan, an activist is collecting 751 backpacks, each marked with the orange handprint of a child, to deposit in front of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on Canada Day.
We can’t change history. And I’ll admit I’m not overly optimistic, but with the Black Lives Matter and now Every Child Matters movements rising from these tragedies so their voices can finally be heard, can we at least try to make sure something like this never happens again?