Residential School Cemeteries: Grief and Truth

Ken Neumann’s statement for June, National Indigenous History Month

This month, there are so many present and past accomplishments by Indigenous people’s that we could and should acknowledge.

But the discovery of the remains of at least 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School demands that we focus on a shameful episode in Canadian history. 

“What kind of school needs to have a cemetery, let alone an unmarked one? No school that is truly dedicated to caring for children, that’s what,” said USW National Director Ken Neumann.

Between 1883 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were seized by the Canadian government and forced to attend schools, usually run by the government and a major church and usually far from the children’s home communities. The goal of the residential school system was to extinguish Indigenous cultures—cultural genocide. In addition to being robbed of family and community connections and of mother tongues and spiritual practices, many students experienced physical and sexual abuse. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released it landmark report in 2015, was established as the result of a lawsuit by residential school survivors in order to document and educate Canadians about the savagery committed in our names.

The Commission estimated that the odds of a student dying over the 113-year life of the residential-school program was 1 in 25 (while the odds of a Canadian soldier dying in World War Two was 1 in 26). However, it estimated that the death rate in the early years of the program was 1 in 2, mainly due to tuberculosis and influenza, made worse by poor food, neglect, and abuse. 

“My heart goes out to the Indigenous families and communities whose children were taken to the Kamloops school,” Neumann said. “While I am grateful that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought this shameful history into the light of day, now we need to know the full story about deaths at residential schools.

“Most importantly, Indigenous communities and families need to be able to mourn and honour those lost children.”

National Director Neumann called on the federal government to support an Indigenous-led process to identify and care for other burial sites associated with residential schools.

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