From 1863 to 1998, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and taken to residential schools in Canada.
These schools administered by the government and managed for the most part by the Catholic Church were part of the policy of cultural assimilation of indigenous children.
The miners could not speak their language or practice the culture of their people. Many were mistreated and suffered abuse.
Christian churches played a vital role in the founding and operation of these schools.
The Catholic Church, in particular, was responsible for the operation of up to 70 percent of the 130 boarding schools, according to the Society of Indian Residential School Survivors.
The children were forced to abandon their native language, speak English or French, and convert to Christianity.
Joseph Maud was one of these children. In 1966, at the age of five, he entered Pine Creek Residential School in Manitoba, Canada.
Students were required to speak English or French, but Maud only spoke the language of her people, Ojibwa.
If students spoke their own language, their ears were torn off and their mouths were washed out with soap, Maud told the BBC in 2015, when releasing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on the issue.
“But the biggest pain was being separated from my parents, my cousins and my aunts and uncles,” Maud told the BBC.
The report describes the government’s policy as “cultural genocide”.
“These measures were part of a coherent policy aimed at eliminating Indigenous peoples as distinct peoples and assimilating them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” the document states.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wanted to free itself from its legal and financial obligations to Indigenous peoples and take control of their lands and resources,” the report notes.
Bad conditions and abuse
The report details serious failures in the care and safety of children, with the support of the Church and the government.
Students were often housed in poorly constructed, poorly heated and unsanitary buildings, according to the report. Many did not have access to a qualified doctor to monitor them.
The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that around 6,000 children died in boarding schools. Their bodies rarely returned to the family. Many were buried in unmarked graves.
The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and burial locations of many of these minors. In a recent survey, the initiative announced that it had already identified the places where more than 4,100 children were buried.
Many of those who survived had to live with memories of emotional, physical and even sexual abuse.
Maud told the BBC in 2015 that she had to kneel on the concrete floor of the chapel because the nuns said “that was the only way God would listen.”
“I was crying when I knelt down and thought: When is this going to end? Someone help me,” he reported.
He remembered that he had already urinated in bed. A nun in charge of his room then rubbed her face in her own urine.
“It was very degrading and humiliating. Because I was in a dormitory with 40 other children,” he said.
In 2008, the Canadian government officially apologized for its past actions.
Discovery at the Kamloops school
The Kamloops School operated between 1890 and 1969, in the city of the same name, in the province of British Columbia, in the far west of Canada. It was the largest in this segment, known as the Indian home school system.
Under Catholic administration, it welcomed 500 students during its longest period of occupation, in the 1950s.
Late last month, a mass grave containing the remains of at least 215 indigenous children was discovered. This fact caused outrage throughout the country.
The discovery was made thanks to an initiative by the region’s Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Indigenous Nation, which said it used ground-penetrating radar during a survey of the site.
Museum experts and coroners are helping to establish the causes and times of the children’s deaths, which are currently unknown.
The final report on the discovery is expected to be released in mid-June and preliminary conclusions may be revised. Indigenous leaders and advocates believe that number of 215 will increase.
To date, there is no comprehensive picture of the number of children who have died, the circumstances of their deaths or where they are buried. Initiatives like that of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation are helping to bring together part of this history.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation a “painful reminder” of a “shameful chapter in our country’s history.”
Trudeau called on the Catholic Church to “take responsibility” for its role in residential schools.
The government took over management of the Kamloops school in 1969 and used it as a residence for local students until 1978, when it closed.
“We need to know the truth before we can talk about justice, healing and reconciliation,” Trudeau said.
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