Dean DettloffSeptember 27, 2021
A young woman takes part in a rally in Toronto June 6, 2021, after the remains of 215 children were on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May. For years Indigenous people in Canada have wanted an apology from the pope for the church's role in abuse at Catholic-run residential schools. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)A young woman takes part in a rally in Toronto June 6, 2021, after the remains of 215 children were on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)

At least 160 unmarked graves were discovered using ground-penetrating radar near the Kuper Island Indian Residential School on July 12, the fifth in a series of similar discoveries at residential schools across Canada since May. All five schools surveyed so far were operated by Catholic orders or dioceses—four of them were administered at one time by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The discoveries have prompted a renewed discussion about Canada’s colonial history and the integral role played by the Catholic Church, which at the government's behest administered around 60 percent of Canada’s residential schools.

While the discoveries have rocked the Canadian public, many questions concerning the gravesites—like confirmed causes of death, exactly who is buried and why the graves were not marked—are still being resolved. There is no shortage of reliable clues, however, uncovered especially by the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Between 2008 and 2015 that body investigated the history of the residential schools and compiled testimonies from residential school survivors, archival data and historical research to compile an often-disturbing historical narrative of the residential school system.

Many questions concerning the gravesites—like confirmed causes of death, exactly who is buried and why the graves were not marked—are still being resolved.

In several reports released in 2015, the T.R.C. explained the origins, practices and lasting effects of the residential schools. Its Volume 4 included details from registers of 3,200 confirmed deaths of named and unnamed students. In 32 percent of these deaths, the name of the child was not recorded by the government or school administrators, and in 49 percent no cause of death was recorded.

The T.R.C. found that the mortality rate for Indigenous children in residential schools was around five times the average for non-Indigenous children in Canada in the 1930s and ’40s. While the gap in mortality rates narrowed in the 1950s, the mortality rate in residential schools was still double the national average for non-Indigenous children in the 1960s.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, established by the T.R.C., has continued to add to the list of confirmed deaths. “There are now 4,118 confirmed student deaths through records previously researched by T.R.C. and validated with N.C.T.R. work,” an N.C.T.R. spokesperson told America in an email, adding that there are still nearly 100 sets of church and government records that have not yet been researched.

According to T.R.C. researchers, Indigenous children in residential schools endured badly trained staff, racist prejudices, and physically unhealthy and abusive environments. “Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abuse,” according to Volume 1 of the T.R.C. report, dealing with the history of the schools.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the mortality rate for Indigenous children in residential schools was around five times the average for non-Indigenous children.

Sexual abuse was endemic at the schools. Many harbored longtime predators, most of whom have never been prosecuted. Reports of corporal punishment at the schools are harrowing and sometimes led to suicide among the Indigenous children. In one example, according to Ontario Provincial Police records, students were subjected to a homemade electric chair at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in London, Ontario, which was operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Sisters of the Cross.

The recent discoveries of unmarked burials have left many wondering what motivated 19th- and 20th-century Catholics to participate in a system that in the end would be responsible for the loss and violation of thousands of Indigenous children.

Colonialism, Catholicism and Canada

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin (1829-1902) was a major architect of the residential school system. It was his belief that maintaining Indigenous cultural practices would lead to the self-extinction of Indigenous people. Modeled in part on reformatory prisons in France, the residential schools intended to alienate Indigenous children from their language, traditions and families, and ultimately to make them ashamed of their heritage. The schools’ aim was to replace Indigenous cultures and languages with Canada’s English and French cultures, supplemented with industrial and agricultural training.

“[Bishop Grandin] boasted that the orphans educated at mission schools hated to be reminded of their Aboriginal ancestry,” according to the T.R.C. report.

Bishop Grandin’s views deeply influenced the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who operated the majority of the Catholic residential schools in Canada. Ken Thorson, O.M.I., the provincial superior of O.M.I. Lacombe Canada, said in an email to America that while the Oblates were not founded to be educators, “our charism called us to respond to the needs of the day, and so education was a hallmark of Oblate ministry in Canada, with schools, colleges and universities being established.”

“When the Canadian government began to establish Indian Residential Schools, they enlisted the assistance of the various churches primarily because they were already involved in education,” said Father Thorson. “The Oblates of the time responded, seeing the opportunity for evangelization and education.”

The Oblates of today now understand this part of their history as complicity in Canadian colonialism. “We experience deep regret about Oblate involvement in residential schools, about implementing government policy to restrict or forbid Indigenous languages and culture,” said Father Thorson.

The residential schools intended to alienate Indigenous children from their language, traditions and families, and ultimately to make them ashamed of their heritage.

In 1991, the Oblates offered an apology for their role in residential schooling and “for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism” that characterizes the way governments and churches treat Indigenous people.

“As we grow in our understanding of the generational damage which was the result [of residential schools], our participation in the systems which separated children from parents is perhaps our source of greatest sorrow,” said Father Thorson.

Circumstances around burials

The T.R.C.’s historical narrative found that dangerous conditions at the schools were exacerbated by chronic underfunding and a refusal on the part of the Canadian government to provide resources, leading to preventable deaths due to dilapidated living quarters, illness and malnutrition.

In about half of the cases where the cause of death could be ascertained by researchers, “death was due to general lung disease, influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis,” according to the N.C.T.R. “Students also died of illnesses like appendicitis, diabetes, Bright’s disease, measles, meningitis, typhoid fever and whooping cough. They died due to severe trauma caused by accidents or drowned or died of exposure while running away. They were killed in fires, and [died] by suicide.”

Researchers have emphasized that transmission of diseases like tuberculosis was disproportionately higher among residential school populations, a result of social determinants affecting the children’s health like malnutrition, overcrowding and poor ventilation.

The Missionary Oblates offered an apology “for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism” that characterizes the way governments and churches treat Indigenous people.

Christian burial was the norm at the residential schools, which in addition to those administered by Catholic orders or dioceses were also run by Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Methodist churches, among others. The T.R.C. adds that schools and missions sought to change the burial practices of Indigenous people.

Indigenous children were made to participate in the burials. “There are accounts of students digging graves, carrying caskets and being part of funeral processes at the schools,” said the N.C.T.R. Survivor accounts include haunting details. Michael Cachagee, for example, a survivor of the Anglican-run St. John’s Indian Residential School in Chapleau, Ontario, recalled that “because the graves dug in the winter were shallow, in the spring, bears would root about in the cemetery and feed on the student remains.”

Parents were often not informed when children became ill, fled or died at the schools. T.R.C. reports show that when Indigenous parents refused to send their children back to the schools, the Canadian government compelled attendance by prosecuting parents for truancy, using police to forcibly return children in the fall and sometimes withholding food assistance to communities and individuals that did not cooperate.

The deceased children were usually buried on school grounds or in local cemeteries, rather than returned to home communities, because of the cost, distance and lack of infrastructure, according to the N.C.T.R. In addition to children who died while attending residential schools, school cemeteries may also include former students, staff and community members.

Three causes have been found for the large number of unmarked graves of Indigenous children: Many graves were never marked during instances of high death rates, like during an epidemic, which sometimes also included burying more than one person in a single grave; many grave markers, often wooden crosses, were destroyed by neglect of cemetery grounds or wildfires; and other grave markers were deliberately removed. That was the case of graves in the Marieval cemetery, which the Archdiocese of Regina confirms were bulldozed by an Oblate priest in the 1960s in response to a dispute with the chief of the Cowessess First Nation.

Next Steps for the Oblates

Catholics in Canada have struggled to come to terms with such a violent history, and many are publicly leaving the church because of its participation in the residential schools and an unwillingness on the part of the hierarchy to apologize as a body. Catholic bishops in Canada apologized on Sept. 23 “unequivocally” to Indigenous peoples for the suffering endured in residential schools, promising to provide documents that may help “memorialize” students buried in unmarked graves, work on getting the pope to visit Canada and raise money to help fund initiatives recommended by local Indigenous partners.

In a previous statement on its website, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had said that “each diocese and religious community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions. The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

Dangerous conditions at the schools were exacerbated by chronic underfunding, leading to preventable deaths due to dilapidated living quarters, illness and malnutrition.

For their part, the Oblates are cooperating with the N.C.T.R. to provide data sources for additional research.

“Right now, our response at the leadership level is to listen to Indigenous people in order to know how we might respond to what they need to continue along the path of healing,” said Father Thorson. “A primary contribution we can make is the sharing of our records so Indigenous peoples might have the fullest access possible to their history and story with regard to residential schools.”

Over 40,000 documents were already provided to the T.R.C. by the Oblates, and the order is working with the N.C.T.R. to fill in remaining gaps. Some records that had not been previously made available were the Codex Historicus and Oblate personnel files.

“The codices are the daily diary of a particular Oblate community,” Father Thorson explained. He said those reports are being gathered and will be prepared for digitization.

Catholics in Canada have struggled to come to terms with such a violent history, and many are publicly leaving the church because of its participation in the residential schools.

“There may be information that is really pertinent to the history of communities and individuals; there may well be references to deaths of children, but I don’t know that,” he said.

He called the archival transfer “long overdue” and could not explain why the work had not been undertaken before. “We should have done it years ago,” he said.

“The personnel files of Oblates who worked at residential schools had not been made available previously because of privacy concerns; but as has often been said, there can be no reconciliation without the truth,” Father Thorson said. “Our recently announced partnership with the N.C.T.R. provides the appropriate processes for accession of these documents and ensures that the historical information they may contain is available to residential school survivors, and for the families and communities of those children who did not return home.”

As the register of confirmed student deaths grows in light of more documentary evidence, other residential school sites are currently being surveyed. More graves are expected to be found before Pope Francis receives a delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders this December, a pastoral visit organized with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This story has been updated to reflect the Canadian bishops’ latest statement on Sept. 23.

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