On May 27th, 2021 the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed they had discovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children at Kamloops Indian Residential school in British Columbia. The school never reported the deaths of these children, some of whom were as young as three years old.
This revelation reached national headlines in Canada almost immediately. Many Canadians were shocked at this discovery, and a countrywide discussion on the impact of residential schools started. The conversation is ongoing as Canadians collectively grieve, honour, and remember all victims of the residential school system.
What Were Residential Schools?
Residential schools were a crucial piece in the Canadian government’s plan to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society and strip them of their culture. The origins of residential schools date back to the 1830s, but Canada would not develop the residential school system until the 1880s.[i] The government would provide (often minimal) funding while the churches ran the schools themselves. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, by the 1930s, residential schools totalled 80 across the country. The Roman Catholic church ran the majority of the schools, but the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches also had institutions. [ii]
Mistreatment of Indigenous Children
The staff of residential schools abused their students. Teachers would cut students’ hair and give them new names. If the children tried to use their native language, staff would punish them – often physically. Schools also forced Christianity onto children, with much of their lacklustre schooling focusing on religion. [iii]The children did not even receive a full day of school, as they spent afternoons doing chores and maintenance. While this work was, on paper, meant to prepare students with the skills they could utilize to get jobs in the future, in reality, students received little training and were just free labour for the school. [v]
As mentioned earlier, the government funded residential schools across Canada. This funding, however, was woefully inadequate for the number of students that attended each school. [viii] Schools were overcrowded and often didn’t have enough food to properly feed everyone. This made schools a breeding ground for diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza. The Canadian Encyclopedia also details experiments Indigenous children unknowingly participated in that impacted their health:
“They included restricting some students’ access to essential nutrients and dental care in order to assess the effect of improvements made to the diet of other students. Overall, the experiments do not seem to have resulted in any long-term benefits.”
Government Takeover and Closure of Residential Schools
The Indigenous population, students and parents alike, frequently protested the existence of residential schools. For the most part, however, the Canadian government ignored them[ix].
In 1969, the Federal Government took over the running of residential schools. Not long afterward, they made the decision to phase out the schools.[x] Over the next few decades, residential schools shut down. The final school closed in 1996.
After decades of demands from Indigenous groups and activists, the Canadian Federal Government created a 1.9-billion-dollar compensation fund for residential school survivors in 2005 [xi] after numerous survivors launched class-action lawsuits.[xii] former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology in 2008. However, this initial compensation and apology excluded survivors of federal day schools (many of whom were Metis) and residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. [xiii] The Canadian government reached settlements with survivors of day schools and residential schools in Newfoundland in 2019 and 2016, respectively. [xiv]
Reactions to the News
Indigenous Peoples Response
First Nations groups in British Columbia put together a three-day event called the Wiping of Tears Healing ceremony. The Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, Stellat’en First Nation, and Carrier Sekani Family Services organized the ceremony, which they held on an old residential school site. The event provided a way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to honour the children and process the pain that this news may have caused. Participants left notes and drawings on designated memorial walls, which were burned in the ceremonial fires during the closing ceremony.
Kahnawake, a reserve in Quebec, created a shoe memorial in front of their local Catholic church. Each pair of kids’ shoes represents one of the Indigenous children who died while attending the residential school. [xv] Kahnawake has one of many shoe memorials appearing around the country as Canadians look to honour the memory of residential school survivors and victims.
Many residential school survivors have also been speaking about the trauma they endured while attending school and raising awareness about this horrific chapter of Canadian history.
The Response on Social Media
Initially started by Indigenous users on Facebook and Twitter, many people began leaving children’s moccasins, candles and teddy bears on their porches to honour the victims of Kamloops. [xvi] Using the hashtag #Bearsfor215, users posted pictures of the small memorials they created and shared a few words.
The BC teachers union shared online that it requested members wear orange shirts for the following school week to show solidarity with residential school survivors and victims. [xvii] The colour Orange specifically has become connected to residential school awareness. In 2013, September 30th became Orange Shirt Day, a day of reflection and discussion about the legacy and impact of residential schools. Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor, is the reason for picking the colour orange. On her first day of school, Phyllis wore a brand-new orange shirt her grandmother bought. But when she arrived, the staff took her new shirt from her, and she never saw it again[xviii]. More information can be learned about Orange Shirt Day here.
Response from the Government
The Canadian flag flew at half-mast in response to the discovery at Kamloops Residential school. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the fact that Canada was at fault for the deaths of the 215 Indigenous children, along with all the ones that are still undiscovered. Trudeau also confirmed that the cabinet would be discussing the next steps the government would take after this revelation.
On June 10th, however, Parliament voted against NDP Leah Gazan’s call to recognize Canada’s implementation of residential schools as an act of genocide.[xix] Activists have pushed the government to recognize it as genocide for years, so this most recent rejection was disappointing for many.
The following week, Parliament passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIP). [xx]This bill’s passing requires the government to re-assess federal laws and policies to ensure they align with the original 2007 UN declaration. No new regulations come into existence with the passing of this bill, nor do any old laws change. It serves as a guide for all future law change and creation.[xxi]
Response from the Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloops has offered a formal apology to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. In a video statement, Bishop Joseph Nguyen explained that he had contacted Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Caisimir immediately after learning of the news. Nguyen’s public apology can be found on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloop’s Youtube channel here.
There have been increasing calls for Pope Francis and the Catholic Church to formally apologize for the abuse Indigenous people suffered due to residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed a papal apology as the 58th call to action, found on page seven of their 2015 report. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to apologize in 2017, but there has been no word of a planned apology from the institution.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has a short statement on their website that argues neither they nor the Pope is responsible for the actions of the dioceses that ran residential schools. Each diocese is autonomous, and are legally responsible for their own actions. The statement also references an informal apology made in 1991 by the conference. Based on this, the chances of a proper apology from the Pope are slim, at least for the moment.
Some Catholic organizations, such as the Sisters of St.Ann – a nunnery that staffed the Kamloops Indian Residential school – have committed to releasing records that will help identify the victims. In the past, activists have accused the Catholic church of withholding important historical documents related to residential schools. Whether the church at large will finally allow Indigenous communities access to these records remains to be seen.
Further Discoveries of Unmarked Graves at Residential Schools
After the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed their findings, other Indigenous communities followed suit. Many launched, or are establishing, investigations into the former residential school grounds near them. In the few short weeks since the initial discovery, the number of Indigenous children found in unmarked graves has dramatically increased.
The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation shared that their investigation confirmed 104 children in unmarked graves near Brandon Residential School. Only 78 of the 104 match burial records from the school.[xxii]
Members of Muskowekwan First Nation held a ceremony to honour the 35 unmarked graves located at Muscowequan Indian Residential School. Participants laid out thirty-five pairs of children’s moccasins to represent each of the victims. [xxiii]
However, since not all of Muscowequan Indian Residential School’s grounds have been searched, this number may rise. [xxiv]
Cowessess First Nation discovered a heart-breaking 715 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential school. Chief Cadmus Delorme shared with CBC that they believe the graves originally had headstones but someone later removed them. He suggests it was likely the former owners of the cemetery – the Roman Catholic church.
Ways to Support Indigenous Communities At This Time
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation released a pdf outlining how best to support their community. For non-Indigenous allies, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc recommends reviewing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report and Calls to Action and learning about intergenerational trauma. The document also suggests offering a supportive ear to Indigenous friends affected by the news.
Indian Residential School Survivors Society, an organization that provides services and aid to former students of residential schools, accepts donations. Orange Shirt Day is also always accepting donations as well. Individual communities, such as Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, are looking for donations to fund the specialized ground-radar technology needed to locate victims or create permanent memorials.
There are many questions about what happens next – none of which one could accurately answer at this point in time. Does this spotlight on the horrific impacts of Canada’s colonialism result in meaningful changes to legislation and education? Will the mounting pressure from activists and allies for a statement from the Pope about the mass abuse and neglect of Indigenous children caused by the Roman Catholic diocese result in a proper papal apology? Right now, Canadians can only speculate.
But there is one certain thing: this is only the beginning. More schools will be searched, and communities who choose to will identify the victims. Permanent memorials will appear across the country, and it will be difficult for Canadians to be willfully ignorant of this chapter of history any longer.
[i] Canadian Geographic, “History of Residential Schools,” Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Canadian Geographic, June 15, 2018), https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/history-of-residential-schools/.
[ii] Miller, J.R., “Residential Schools in Canada”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published October 10, 2012; Last Edited June 01, 2021. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools
[iii] Miller, J.R., “Residential Schools in Canada
[xii] “Residential School History,” NCTR (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation ), accessed June 27, 2021, https://nctr.ca/education/teaching-resources/residential-school-history/.
[xiii] “Residential School History,” NCTR (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation ),
[xv] “Kahnawake Residents Create Memorial for 215 Children Found Buried at B.C. Residential School Site | CBC News,” CBCnews (CBC/Radio Canada, May 30, 2021), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/kahnawake-residents-create-memorial-for-215-children-1.6046193.
[xvi] Brian Trinh, “The Meaning behind Orange Shirts for the Kamloops Residential School Victims,” Broadview Magazine, June 4, 2021, https://broadview.org/orange-shirt-meaning/.
[xvii] Brian Trinh, “The Meaning behind Orange Shirts for the Kamloops Residential School Victims.”
[xviii] Phyllis Webstad, “Phyllis’ Story,” Orange Shirt Day: every child matters, accessed June 28, 2021, https://www.orangeshirtday.org/phyllis-story.html.
[xix] Olivia Stefanovich, “NDP Push to Declare Residential Schools a Genocide Defeated in House | CBC News,” CBCnews (CBC/Radio Canada, June 11, 2021), https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/ndp-residential-school-genocide-motion-vote-rejected-1.6061006.
[xx] Rachel Aiello, “Bill to Align Canadian Law with UN Indigenous Rights Declaration Passes to Become Law,” CTVNews (CTVNews, June 16, 2021), https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/bill-to-align-canadian-law-with-un-indigenous-rights-declaration-passes-to-become-law-1.5473285.
[xxi] Rachel Aiello, “Bill to Align Canadian Law with UN Indigenous Rights Declaration Passes to Become Law.”
[xxii] Darrell Stranger, “Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Working to Identify Children at Former School,” APTN News (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, June 17, 2021), https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/sioux-valley-dakota-nation-working-towards-identifying-children-at-brandon-residential-school/.
[xxiii] Stefanie Davis, “Muskowekwan First Nation Recognizes 35 Unmarked Graves at Residential School Site,” Regina CTVnews (CTV News, June 2, 2021), https://regina.ctvnews.ca/muskowekwan-first-nation-recognizes-35-unmarked-graves-at-residential-school-site-1.5451477.
[xxiv] Stefanie Davis, “Muskowekwan First Nation Recognizes 35 Unmarked Graves at Residential School Site.”