June 27, 2021

The Devastating discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian and Marieval Indian Residential Schools

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by Savannah Carr-Wilson

Our firm stands in solidarity with the residential school survivors, Indigenous communities, and others grieving the devastating discoveries of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. These discoveries highlight the tremendous suffering caused by residential schools. They also illustrate the need for provincial and federal governments to create real change, by fully implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and supporting Indigenous communities as they investigate further schools and commemorate their missing children.

Discovery of the unmarked graves

In late May 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced preliminary findings of a ground-penetrating radar survey of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The survey results revealed the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves. Some of these children were as young as three years old.

On June 24, 2021, the Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, and said it would be treating the site like a crime scene.

These discoveries are devastating, but not surprising. We know from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that many Indigenous children who were removed from their families and culture and forced to attend Canada’s more than 130 residential schools never returned home. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has estimated that approximately 4,100 children died while attending these schools, although the actual number is likely far higher. We also know that Indigenous children who attended residential schools experienced malnutrition, neglect, and abuse, including physical and sexual abuse. Overall, these discoveries illustrate the tremendous harm and suffering caused by residential schools, the impacts of which continue to reverberate today.

These discoveries have led to calls across Canada for provincial governments and the federal government to take further action and provide support for communities to search the grounds of additional residential schools. In the wake of the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovery, Canada and Ontario announced initial commitments of $27 million and $10 million respectively to support communities to investigate and commemorate additional sites. These discoveries have also echoed across the world. A set of UN experts released a statement in early June calling on Canada and the Catholic Church to conduct a full investigation into the discovery at the former Kamloops school, and to conduct similar investigations at all other former residential schools. The experts also called on the judiciary to conduct necessary criminal investigations and hold all perpetrators and concealers still alive responsible for their crimes.

Implementing the TRC Calls to Action and providing necessary support to Indigenous communities

These discoveries further underline the need for urgent action by Canada and provincial governments to foster reconciliation and address crimes and injustices against Indigenous peoples. Part of this action must include fully implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which were set out to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance reconciliation.

In addition, Canada and provincial governments must provide Indigenous communities with adequate support to investigate other former residential schools and commemorate and address additional sites found, including support related to release of necessary records. Indigenous communities must lead the way on this truth-finding and healing work.