They seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth, but since yesterday Canada knows that 215 missing children from indigenous families were found in a mass grave. Buried anonymously in an unrecognizable place near an old school in the city of Kamloops. Using radar technology, the tomb could be traced.
The find leads to shocked reactions, but is no surprise for Jeanette den Toonder of the Centre for Canadian Studies of the University of Groningen. In the so-called residential schools, where the native population was “raised” to Western model citizens for decades, it was the practice of disappearing deceased children into anonymous mass graves.
Those boarding schools, where indigenous children were obliged to be brought to, are the result of the Indian Act of 1867, the purpose of which was to assimilate the original population with the white majority of Europe. “The savages had to be civilized, was the thought.”
Up to 60 percent died
The children of Inuit and First Nations (‘Indians’ popularly) were therefore not allowed to speak their mother tongue. From the 1920s, the churches were also involved in education, to teach the children the Christian faith. At least 150,000 children lived in such institutions and were taught there.
Malnutrition, abuse and infectious diseases were common to the special schools, says Den Toonder. The mortality rate was therefore high: in some schools up to 60 percent of children died. The deaths were often poorly or undocumented, after which the bodies were buried anonymously.
“ The parents were not informed about this. They had little contact with their children anyway, because that would have a bad effect on them.” As a result, the parents often did not know where their children had gone. In Kamloops, families won‘t find out their deaths until now.
At the end of the 20th century, the statue of the schools began to tilt slowly, says Den Toonder. “The United Church of Canada was in 1986 the first church to recognize abuses in schools, followed by the Anglican Church.” Finally, the last residential school closed its doors only in 1996.
Apologies and ‘healing‘
The Canadian government apologized for the school system in 2008, after which a committee of inquiry was established. It described the policy as a form of ‘cultural genocide‘. Recently, Prime Minister Trudeau called on the Pope to apologize on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, but the Church leader placed the responsibility on the individual churches.
In recent years, more and more work has been made to find out the facts committed against the native population of Canada. This is not about dealing with those responsible, says Den Toonder. “The indigenous communities want to tell their story, get recognition and healing, healing the wounds in society.”
These wounds can still be seen in the country in the deprived position of Inuit and First Nations. In 2019, researchers concluded that indigenous women are thirteen times more likely to be murdered or missing than other Canadians. Life expectancy is also lower on average five to seven years, partly due to an overrepresentation in the number of suicides, abuses and drug-related and alcohol-related offences.
In addition, the indigenous peoples are overrepresented in prison figures. Although they represent only a few percent of the Canadian population, 30% of the detainees come from an indigenous community. In women’s prisons, that figure is even 42 percent.
Equality between the different groups is therefore still a long way away. “That will take generations to come. Equal representation is also important, as the Trudeau government is very aware of this,” says Den Toonder. The Liberal is known for its diverse and gender-like constituted government.
“ The question is whether you can bring the groups together, because they are completely different cultures.” Ironically, education can play a special role in this, says the Canada expert. “Not by adapting the indigenous population to Western standards, but by making indigenous culture part of the curriculum.”
Learning from indigenous people
The healing of the wounds goes in the right direction according to Den Toonder. “People now realize that there is also much to learn from the native population, for example in dealing with nature.”
Meanwhile, Kamloops is starting to investigate and identify the infant bodies found. The regional government of the indigenous community may want to repatriate the bodies to the communities from which they come. That too will have to contribute todesired healing.