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Indigenous Kids' Bodies Recovered — Not Discovered, Says Canada's Assembly Of First Nations Chief

It’s been a painful month for Canada’s Indigenous communities.

RoseAnne Archibald was recently elected Canada’s first female national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, leading more than 900,000 Indigenous people in 634 First Nations Communities.

Just days later, another 160 unmarked graves were uncovered at a former Indigenous residential school site on a Southern Gulf Island off of British Columbia. This discovery adds to the more than 1,000 graves believed to contain remains of children forcibly taken from their families and housed in the so-called schools from the late 1880s to the 1990s.

Survivors describe horrific mental and physical abuse at the sites, including the prohibition of any Indigenous cultural practices such as the use of their own languages.

“I don’t like to call them schools — they were institutions of assimilation and genocide,” Archibald says. “And our survivors said that for the longest time they were told stories of the deaths and murders that happened in these schools.”

The investigation and location of the mass graves were conducted with the use of ground penetrating radar technology.

Less than a week ago, members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations held a day of testimony about the findings at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia where the remains of 215 children were discovered in late May.

“It was extraordinarily emotional and heartbreaking,” Archibald says. “And as I was sitting in the room, I was watching other people and many of them were triggered into their old trauma.”

Archibald describes the powerful testimonies by elders who were only 5 or 6-years-old when they were taken to the schools, eliciting tears from fellow survivors in the audience. Many survivors still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.

“That’s where the majority of Canadians have been deeply affected by this,” Archibald says, “because they see their own children and they understand that now, No. 1, that genocide did happen in Canada and that our children were targets of that.”

Elder Evelyn Camille, a survivor of the Kamloops boarding school, said that fellow students had attempted to warn the authorities about the atrocities against children at the schools but their words fell on deaf ears.

“We tried to mention over, and over, and over, ‘there are many children missing,’ ” she told the audience. “Many of our children tried to cross the river to swim across, many were lost in the water, many of our children who ran away during the winter froze to death on their way home. The black robes start lying about the children.”

Archibald says cultural genocide — the refusal to let kids speak their own languages — was one aspect of the abuse. One survivor told her about being forced to eat soap. Others were beaten.

But she says there were also horrific examples of physical genocide that the children were forced to witness.

“One of the worst stories I heard was a survivor saying that babies were put into incinerators in the schools,” she says. “These are crimes against humanity and crimes against children.”

It’s important that people hear about these atrocities, she says, because truth must proceed reconciliation. As Canadians learn and process this chapter in history, she says survivors can focus on healing the intergenerational trauma they experience.

And the government, she says, needs to be part of the healing by creating programs that provide funding and resources to the community.

“Reparations have to happen to communities [and] to families right across Canada,” she says. “When you think of mental health and addiction issues, almost all of that comes out of the colonization experience, particularly the fact that every family has just had to send their children to school.”

Archibald points to the research of Dr. Pamela Toulouse who says that 100% of First Nations people suffer from intergenerational trauma.

“That’s the impact of these institutions,” Archibald says.

Archibald is calling for an independent criminal investigation into the church organizations that operated these institutions. She says the investigation should also delve into the role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in removing the children from their families and policing the schools.

As to what she wants from a criminal investigation, she says the answer is simple: “justice.”

“That’s what these children deserve,” she says. “It is the government of Canada that has to be accountable for this.”

So far the remains of more than 1,600 children have been located, and she anticipates that “thousands upon thousands more” will be located as investigations continue.

Because she says there’s a conflict of interest in Canada investigating its own wrongdoing, Archibald and the Assembly of First Nations want outside help from the United Nations International Criminal Court.

Another issue for First Nations survivors is the complicity of the Catholic church in the operation of the schools, Archibald says.

A First Nations delegation will be headed to the Vatican this December to meet with Pope Francis, who has not apologized for the church’s role. Archibald has said she would not participate in the trip.

“We need more than an apology. We need reparations. We need justice,” she says. “We’re not going to get that by having a lovely visit with the pope in the Vatican.”

Since the first graves were discovered in May, at least five Catholic churches were set on fire in protest.

“I get it, there is so much hurt,” Archibald says. “You’re talking about thousands of children.”

She explains Canadians need to do more than destroy or burn the symbols and edificies of colonization. The entire system needs to be decolonized, she says.

“First Nations need to live in a world that our spirituality, that our culture and our language are respected and lifted up,” she says. “This whole genocide process was about destroying everything about us — including taking the lives of our children.”

What needs to happen now, she concludes, is to address the systemic issues that affect Indigenous people — racism, hatred and condescension.

“We can lift each other up,” Archibald says, “and live in a world where everyone is safe and loved and respected and deemed worthy.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtCamila Beiner and Miller-Medzon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.