Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
The remains of over 200 First Nations children have been found in a mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
In late May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the remains of 215 children, some as young as three-years-old, were found in the unmarked grave in the British Columbian city.
The bodies were discovered through a ground-penetrating radar operated on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, one of the largest institutions of its kind in the country.
The institution was founded in 1816 and was mostly operated under the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The Catholic institution was home for First Nations children who had been forcibly removed from their families, communities and culture.
Between 1890 and the late 1970s, 150,000 First Nations children were separated from their families and placed into State-funded Christian schools. This removal was the result of Government policies to enforce assimilation.
First Nations children were forced to convert to Christianity and stripped of their right to speak traditional languages.
It is believed 6,000 children passed away as a result.
Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor, Saa Hiil Thut, is a member of the St’át’imc First Nation in BC’s Interior and graduated from the institution in 1968.
Thut, speaking to Global News, said families who lost children never knew what happened to them.
“They were monsters that did this,” he said.
“To bury children as young as three-years-old in an unmarked grave. That’s the true sign of a monster.”
Thut said when the Government and involved organisations take responsibility, people can begin to heal.
“My concern is the survivors. Many have not had a chance to heal from this experience,” he said.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said in an address it’s a responsibility of all to face the province’s history.
“Survivors of the residential school atrocities live it every day,” he said.
“Their children are also living it, and their grandchildren are living it. This is not something that happened in the past.
“It is something that is going on right now, and the events in Kamloops over the weekend bring that home graphically to all British Columbians, all Canadians and, indeed, the international community.”
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) declared residential schools were part of “a conscious policy of cultural genocide” against First Nations peoples.
It is recorded that prior to the TRC’s launch in 2008, the Catholic Church was approached with the allegations of the mass grave. The institution denied any knowledge of the disappeared children.
“These children are just some of the children who died in the schools,” says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
“There are many others in unmarked graves across the country.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged the “shameful policy” which he said “stole Indigenous children from their communities”.
“Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident,” he said.
“We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality — a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it.”
“Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged or not returned at all.”
The Prime Minister also acknowledged the Kamloops site during a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
“Children should have never been taken away to those schools. Places where they were separated from their families, and their communities. Places where they faced terrible loneliness. Places where they suffered unthinkable abuse,” he said.
“Today, some of the children who were found in Kamloops, who have yet to be found in other places across the country, would have been grandparents, or great-grandparents. They would have been Elders, knowledge keepers and community leaders.”
“They are not. And that is the fault of Canada.”
Plans are being made to employ forensic experts to identify and repatriate the bodies of the 215 children, and the Prime Minister is in negotiations with his staff regarding ways in which the Government can support survivors.
By Rachael Knowles