WARNING: There are details in this story that some readers may find worrying.
When Jackie Bromley, 70, heard the news, she had flashbacks of her time at St. Mary’s Residential School in Blood Reserve, southern Alberta.
The remains of 215 children were found on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC on Thursday
When Bromley was 10, she remembers students talking about graves behind the school – but she can’t remember seeing headstones.
“I thought of the back yard, apparently there were a couple of graves there. And the first thing I thought about was wondering if there are any children buried there, you know? “
Bromley’s classmates were right – there were student graves in the schoolyard. A 1945 letter from an Indian agent to the school principal urges indigenous workers to dig the graves next to the school to make them even deeper.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) states that it is difficult to come up with exact figures on how many boarding schools there are in Canada.
Kisha Supernant says it is equally difficult to say how many unmarked children’s graves there are.
Supernant, Métis and a descendant of the papaschase First Nation, is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She and her team use ground penetrating radars to help indigenous communities investigate burial sites on the prairies.
She said remote sensing techniques like GPR and drones are critical to surveying unmarked graves to ensure the sites are not physically disrupted.
“The scientific evidence we can provide has power. It shouldn’t be necessary, communities should be heard, but I’m happy to help communities do it,” said Supernant.
“All data is owned and accessed by the community … this does not mean that a device is viewed and operated … it is a process of interacting with the community, where we have to be mindful of the sensitivity of our work and the potential to have an impact can. “
4,100 children died
Both Supernant and Indigenous leaders and advocates are calling on the federal government to fund the use of GPR equipment at former residential school locations across the country.
“This is part of the reconciliation. This is part of the call to action and I firmly believe that communities should be given the means to do the work they need and want to do, ”she said.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has identified 139 residential schools across Canada – 25 of them in Alberta. However, that number excludes schools that have operated without government support, such as those run by religious orders or provincial governments. Some schools have also been renamed or relocated.
Click here to view a larger version of the dorm location map.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in such schools between the 1870s and 1990s.
At least 4,100 children died while attending school – more than one in 50 students – and the TRC estimates the actual number of children at 6,000 or more. At least 821 of these deaths occurred in Alberta.
Linda Many Guns, vice president of indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University, is descended from boarding school survivors. She said the research shows that many parents have never been told what happened to their children – and it will take extensive research to uncover the stories of many students.
“There was an extensive pattern of genocide that was deliberately initiated, not only by these organizations but also on a daily basis by the Indian agents who oversaw and administered all of the reservations,” she said.
“Ancestors ask me to do this work”
A TRC report found that Indian Affairs was generally against sending home the bodies of children who died at school. It is estimated that many residential schools have gravesites due to high mortality rates – but few have places that are formally documented, and even fewer are maintained.
The mass grave found in BC is believed to represent so far unregistered deaths.
CLOCK | Remains of 215 children found on the BC boarding school grounds:
“These schools were founded to forcibly integrate indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Underfunded, in remote locations, far from the children’s home communities, and without proper supervision, schools have been plagued with disease, dubious educational outcomes, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, ”reads an Alberta government resource guide on the school’s history .
For Supernant, the story is personal. She said through her research, she found out about relatives who attended boarding schools.
“I have a strong feeling that the ancestors are asking me to do this work,” she said. “It is the most significant and important work that I will ever do.”
The TRC report called on the federal government to create an online directory of residential school burials and to work with affected groups to develop a plan for ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance and reminder of funeral homes.
The TRC applied for $ 1.5 million in funding in 2009 to locate these unmarked graves. However, this funding was rejected by Ottawa.
“In life they were subjected to institutionalized child neglect; in death they were dishonored,” the report said.
Kelly McGillis organized a vigil in Calgary over the weekend to honor the BC children and encourage action in finding other burial sites.
“We need Canada and everyone who recognizes that when 215 children have lost their lives and we have 139 boarding schools across Canada … where are our guides to find out where our ancestors are buried and how to honor them?”
At the vigil, 215 shoes were put up to represent each child. The City of Calgary has ordered flags to be hoisted at half mast.
Bromley, whose parents and grandparents also attended boarding school, said it was healing to be able to honor the lost children.
“Yeah, I’d rather know the list [of names]. A proper list. “
Support is available for anyone affected by the ongoing effects of boarding schools triggered by the latest reports.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line was set up to support former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by using the. call National 24-hour emergency number: 1-866-925-4419.