By Jessica Dropkin
In May 2021, 215 buried remains of Indigenous children were found in a mass grave on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS). In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools like KIRS from 1890 to 1997. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who have died while attending a residential school. This particular school, KIRS, was established in 1890 as a part of the Canadian Indian Residential School system. The KIRS building still stands today and is located on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation Reservation. This system was a network of boarding schools funded by the Canadian Government, controlled by Christian churches and created to control Indigenous people and their children.
The purpose of these systems was to remove Indigenous children from the influences of their own cultures and convert them to Canadian culture, as well as to Christianity. Indian Residential Schools, were also established in the United States during the same timeline with a primary objective of assimilating Indigenous children into European-American culture, while simultaneously destroying, and vilifying, Native culture. The US Federal Government also had a residential school system with the same culturally genocidal ideals and it was also controlled by Christian Churches. These schools were put on reservations and eventually they erected more of these institutions off reservations to create more distance from their tribes, and families. Indigenous families and their Tribe’s members would camp near these schools because they did not believe their children were safe. The children sent to these schools were not allowed parental visits nor were they allowed to go home.
"To kill the Indian, save the man.", was a quote uttered by Richard Henry Pratt, a US Army officer who developed the Carlisle Indian School, which was the first off-reservation Indian boarding school in America. This quote summarized the intention of these schools which was cultural genocide and forced assimilation to Christianity. From 1879 until 1918, over 10,000 Indigenous children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle. Carlisle and its curriculum was the education model for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and more schools like this rapidly spread into operations across the US. By 1902, there were 25 of these off-reservation schools in 15 states and territories with 6,000 Indigenous students. Upon arrival to these schools, Indigenous children were forced to have European-American style haircuts and forbidden to speak their own language. They were forced to go to church and convert to Christianity. They had their given names changed or replaced by European and biblical names. These children were forced to abandon their Indigenous cultures and identities. The experiences from the students and survivors that were taken to these schools consist of a multitude of stories of mental, physical, emotional, sexual and manual abuse. They were subjected to solitary confinement and corporal punishment which included beatings with sticks, rulers and belts. These were not schools, they were prisons. The staff expected these children to learn subjects such as mathematics while being abused, but instead what they were taught was punishment. Punishment for being an Indigenous child being themselves and the way their family raised them. They were punished for being non-Native. More than 180 students were buried in the Carlisle Indian School Cemetery.
Hundreds of Secwépemc children attended the KIRS school during the early decades of the school’s operation. Their experiences at this school were just as bad if not worse than at Carlisle. They were not allowed to speak in their Native Secwepemctsin language and were whipped for using it. Their hair, flowing long and/or braided, was cut upon assimilation to the school. They were forced to wear dull, constricted uniforms compared to their beautiful, colorful, and handmade, cultural regalia. There were children from other tribes as well taken to this school. George Manuel of the Secwépemc Nation, a KIRS survivor, said his three strongest memories of the school were: "hunger; speaking English; and being called a heathen because of my grandfather". The staff at these schools told these Native children repeatedly that their families and Tribe’s members were savages, heathens, and inhuman all while practicing inhumanity themselves.
In 2008, Kamloops This Week (KTW) reported that there were alleged Indigenous children’s remains buried on and around the KIRS. The Catholic Church was contacted for commentary and they stated they had no knowledge of these claims. This is similar to the delay, denial and inaction in attitudes of law enforcement towards Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) cases. This ignorance is a blatant disregard and turning a blind eye to Indigenous people and their lives. Tribes and community efforts used drones with radars to discover the presence of remains on the KIRS grounds. These allegations should have been investigated, however they were chalked off as rumors and fabricated stories. 13 years later and these remains are uncovered in May 2021. This ignorance and inaction from law enforcement and the government kept these Indigenous families, relatives, and survivors of Indian Residential Schools from receiving justice for the atrocities they were put through. The same can be said for MMIW cases. Law enforcement and government inaction leads to further grief and systemic genocide of Indigenous people.
Following the discovery at KIRS, both the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloops and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver expressed guilt, with the Archbishop J. Michael Miller also offering an apology for the Church’s role in these residential schools.
The United Nations (UN) has called on the Canadian government to conduct “prompt and exhaustive investigations” at not only KIRS, but the other Indian Residential Schools that existed. Nearly all of them have either closed down or were turned into Tribal community-led education centers for Indigenous children. KIRS was still in operation until it was closed down in 1978. The last federally operated residential school in Saskatchewan, Canada was Gordon’s Indian Residential School, which closed in 1996. These schools were still in operation in the 1990’s. These abuses that these children experienced were still happening and even though these were products of colonization, they continued well past that era. The recent discovery at KIRS, the Canadian government has announced $27 million in funding for Indigenous communities to help locate the remains of these children at other residential schools.
Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) began in 1994 to assist survivors of these systemic abuses. IRSSS provides essential services to Residential School Survivors, their families, and those dealing with Intergenerational traumas. They have compiled a call-to-action for the Canadian government that you can find here: https://www.irsss.ca/downloads/trc-calls-to-action.pdf
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.
Learn more about these Residential Schools
Books by Indigenous Authors
The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad
11 Children's Books About Residential Schools
Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol 1 Summary
Finding My Talk: How Fourteen Canadian Native Women Reclaimed Their Lives After Residential School by Agnes Grant
From Bear Rock Mountain: The Life and Times of a Dene Residential School Survivor by Antoine Bear Rock Mountain
They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School by Bev Sellars
Watch ‘Understanding How the Laws Encourage Violence’ by Nonviolence New York https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tyx1lFhVX0
Join our MMIW Campaign https://www.nonviolenceny.org/mmiw
Bodies of 215 Indigenous Children Discovered at Canadian Boarding School
Claims of Mass Grave at T’Kemlups Go Back Years
UN Calls on Canada to Conduct ‘Prompt, Exhaustive Investigations’
Indian Residential School Survivors Society