The Cowesses indigenous group discovered last Wednesday the remains of 751 unidentified people, most of them minors, in a forgotten cemetery located in the Marieval boarding school, in the Saskatchewan province, in Canada. A few days earlier, on May 28, another indigenous group, the Tk’emlúps te secwépemc, from the province of British Columbia, announced the discovery of 215 bodies of children in a boarding school in Kamloops.
Some 1,200 kilometers separate both cemeteries for indigenous children. There are many more across the country, vestiges of a racist assimilation policy through schools that often ended in death and which 150,000 minors from Canada’s First Nations went through.RELATED
“For more than a century, the central objectives of Canadian indigenous policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments, ignore their rights, terminate treaties and, through a process of assimilation, cause their extinction as a legal, social, cultural, and different religious and racial “, points out in his first sentence the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, published in 2015.
“The establishment and operation of residence schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as cultural genocide,” the document maintains. The system officially began in 1883 and the last center closed in 1996, although most had already done so in the 1980s. There were 130 of these centers and many of them were run and managed by the Catholic Church.
“These findings are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, we are going to see more and more,” Heather Bear, vice president of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations, representing the 74 indigenous groups of Saskatchewan, told elDiario.es. “This is just the beginning and I think we are unlocking a legacy for Canada.”
The story began with a letter from the authorities or with the Indian priest, police or agent on duty presenting himself at home. Parents were obliged to send their children to these ‘schools’ and threatened to go to jail if they did not send them. Many of these minors were transferred to remote places, visits were limited and highly controlled, and the siblings were separated. All with the aim of breaking as much as possible with their identity as indigenous and kill the Indian that was inside the child like this.
Upon arrival, their braids were cut (which often had spiritual significance), their clothes were changed into a uniform, and their indigenous names were changed to other Western ones. They were prohibited from speaking in their mother tongue and sometimes had to do forced labor to “finance the operation of schools,” according to the report.
“In some schools they were also handcuffed, handcuffed, beaten, locked in basements and other makeshift jails or exhibited in stocks,” the document states. In addition, many suffered sexual abuse. Sanitary conditions were not adequate and many of the deceased children died of diseases, especially tuberculosis. According to the commission’s data, at least 4,100 children died in boarding schools, although the actual figure is probably higher.
For most of the history of these centers, the general policy was do not return the bodies to the families
The commission also collected multiple testimonies of sexual abuse, like that of Marie Therese Kistabish: “The priest told me to kneel. I did and he began to lift his cassock. It was a long black robe. I began to cry and scream for him to let me go.” Others report in detail touching, rapes, threats, etc.
“It was a holocaust for our children. They were concentration camps,” says Heather Bear. “The Church and the State have to acknowledge it. We received an apology from Canada, but we have not really addressed the genocide of our people. The Pope has not even apologized and admitted that atrocities occurred at the hands of priests and nuns.”
In 2006, Canada reached an out-of-court settlement with indigenous communities following the presentation of the largest joint lawsuit in Canadian history by survivors of these schools. In this agreement, in addition to financial compensation, the creation of the Truth and Justice Commission was agreed, which published its final report almost eight years after the start of the investigations.
“Canadians have been brought up to believe in the inferiority of indigenous peoples and in the superiority of European nations. This history and its consequences, therefore, should not be seen as an indigenous problem. It is a Canadian problem.” writes in introduction Murray Sinclair, president of the commission and judge of indigenous origin.
“We have our people walking lost without language, without culture, without traditions and without values that they have lost with this policy. And that is what we need to heal,” he says. “We have been taught that conscious forgiveness is the step to healing, but who do I have to forgive? Canada, the Church, God? Someone has to step up, admit it, and help us repair our lives. nations because the current system, in which we are supposed to be peer-to-peer partners on this earth, is wrong. [Nuestra comunidad] suffers from poverty and inequality in all areas “.
“When we talk about the settlers, the time has come to end discrimination and racism in this country. That same group is building other institutions such as the penitentiary, police control … Those who run and control them are all settlers, there are no indigenous. Prisons throughout the country are full of our people, “he denounces. “Representation and indigenization seem like very nice words, but is it happening?”
Bear, however, is optimistic when he looks to the future. “We are doing everything we can to revitalize our culture, traditions, customs and language. We cannot change what happened in the past, but there is always tomorrow.”