Non-Indigenous Canadians this week have had to consider how horrific it would be for a Canadian school to have a cemetery filled with unmarked graves of children just beyond its main buildings.
The 215 graves detected by ground penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School are horrifying, but they are not uncommon for residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that many deaths were simply not reported, not even to families, and that records are incomplete or have been destroyed.
For far too many Indigenous Canadians, this is not a fresh horror. It is painful family history.
We do not know exactly how these children died, but testimony from residential school survivors gives us some indications. Malnutrition and untreated illness likely played a role, as did physical abuse, and in some cases, murder and manslaughter.
We do not know exactly how many graves there are, despite the figure of 215. Surveys of the site are not complete, and older graves are more difficult to detect with non-invasive means. The only way to know is through exhumation, and what amounts to an investigation using the techniques of crime scene analysts and archaeologists. There is a painful trade-off between gleaning more information and disturbing the graves of children. Only the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and the other nations who lost children to the school, can make that choice.
What we do know is that for nearly a century, a school in Kamloops had an average annual death rate of at least 2.5 children. If that had happened at a school attended by white children, there would have been a hue and cry heard from coast to coast. Parents would have demanded, and received, action.
Canada’s historical racism towards Indigenous people is why these deaths were allowed to take place, and why non-Indigenous Canadians have ignored the truth about unmarked graves and vanished children for so long.