Written by Jasmin Jouhal- Founder of GGB Vancouver
The Residential School System. A term that you may have been hearing repetitively over the past couple of weeks, but why?
Residential schools were parliament funded boarding schools with a general goal of stripping First Nations children from their heritage. There were over 130 of these so-called schools set up, coast to coast, all across Canada in the 19th century. Over 150,000 Indigenous children had be taken from their homes to be sent to these schools, where they had faced mental, physical and sexual abuse. Many of them had forcibly closed down in the 1970s, but the last hadn’t been shut down until the 1990s.
The first incident that sparked the whole re-conversation of the residential schooling system had occurred in late May, in an area near Vancouver. At least 215 unmarked graves had been discovered, by ground-penetrating radar specialists in the area that was once known as Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school, which had been the largest in Canada, was open from 1890 up until 1969, and was largely run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic group.
For the second time, in less than a month, approximately 751 unmarked graves were located near the ground of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. This school had been founded by Catholic missionaries in the 1890s and hadn’t closed down until the 1990s.
The third of the discoveries of unmarked graves had shown around 182 human remains at St Eugene’s Mission Residential School, near Cranbrook, British Columbia. St. Eugene’s opened in 1890 and became an industrial school in 1912. In 1969, the Canadian government took over the movement from the Catholic Church and closed it down. In total, there were thousands of Indigenous children that had attended St Eugene’s.
Although the discoveries have left many non-Indigenous Canadians in shock, it was no surprise that children in residential schools died and had been buried in unmarked graves. To save money, children were often buried in these unidentified graves that were either on or near school grounds. Researchers had said it's likely that determining the entire number of children who died at the schools may be impossible, simply due to the inadequate record-keeping and the fact that many of these institutions hadn’t released all of their data for the public to see. Unfortunately identity and cause of death were commonly missing from school and government records. It is disgraceful to see government officials calling this horrendous scheme ‘history’, considering the fact that Indigenous lives continue to be discriminated against and ignored. On top of the misinterpretation from the government, there has also been no acknowledgement from the Roman Catholic Church or the British Crown concerning this matter.
It is now time for us, whose ancestors settled in North America, to take action. Everyone has a chance to help by doing your own research to learn about the Indigenous people who were and still are the land’s original caretakers, learn about whose traditional territories you live on and use your voice to speak up on important matters.