In May 2021, the buried remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at the school site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had long believed there were unmarked graves at the school, but their voices had gone ignored.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has so far officially documented 51 students who died at the school. The remains found confirm the long-held belief that the true number was much higher. For years, residential school survivors and their families shared lived experiences of loved ones who went missing. Some students stated they witnessed the death and murder of children at residential schools. Many parents were never notified of their child’s passing, nor were they told where their children were.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the first time questions surrounding missing children were given a serious hearing, believed, and listened to. The students who did not return have come to be known as the Missing Children. The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,177 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is a provincial organization working to provide services to Indian Residential School survivors. They suggest the following actions anyone can take to make a step towards Reconciliation.
Indian residential schools were a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples, funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and operated and administered by Christian churches.
Using the familiar idea of the school system, rather than education, the purpose of the residential school network was a systemic effort to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and to force assimilation into the dominant Canadian culture.
Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, about 30 percent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally. During the residential school era it is estimated that 6,000 children died while attending these schools. There are approximately 80,000 survivors of these schools alive today.
Indian residential schools operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996. The earliest recognized and longest running residential school was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario (1831–1962). The last federally run residential school to close was Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, which closed in 1996.
It wasn't until the release in 2015 of the report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and its 94 calls for action for reconciliation that the details of this brutal and horrifying part of Canada’s history began to be recognized by Canadians. The TRC report concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.
Orange Shirt Day focuses our attention on this shameful historical legacy, but perhaps even more importantly, it offers an opportunity to celebrate the resilience and bravery of the survivors and their families. By telling their stories and offering the generosity of a path to reconciliation, a better future is offered for all Canadians.