Romeo Saganash arrived at the age of six to live in a boarding school in La Tuque, in the province of Quebec. It was one of the 139 schools where 150,000 indigenous children of Canada, of the Mohawk, Ojibwa, Innu, Haida ethnic groups, among others, were forced to live between 1883 and 1996. These institutions, financed by the federal government and administered by religious congregations, they were pillars of the colonial system for more than a century. Inside its walls various types of abuse were experienced: neglect, physical punishment, sexual violence and racism. Saganash still remembers the anger he felt upon arrival, which caused him to withdraw the word from the adults at the center for two years. “Many images of boarding school have returned to my mind in the last few days. I see again the eyes of my friends who suffered physical and sexual abuse. We didn’t talk about it, but I understood it through their looks. I see again those children who cried without shedding a tear, ”says Saganash, who years later became a parliamentarian, a position he used to count the pain of indigenous peoples in Canada.
On May 27, Rosanne Casimir, head of the Tk’emlups te Secwépmc reserve (of the Shuswap people) announced the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous minors – some as young as three years old – on the grounds of the former Kamloops boarding school, in the province of British Columbia. Since then, hundreds of children’s shoes have appeared in squares, parks, stairways and public buildings in the North American country. They have become a symbol against oblivion and a sign of exhaustion and outrage at the unclear deaths so many years later.
The news from Kamloops unleashed a political storm. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the find a “painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter” in Canadian history. Perry Bellegarde, head of the country’s Assembly of First Nations, said the revelation was outrageous but confirmed what alumni have pointed out for years. The discovery of the 215 remains has prompted requests to search for bodies in other internees. About fifteen Canadian lawyers have asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation for crimes against humanity.
These 139 schools were created to integrate indigenous ethnic groups into the dominant society. The creators of the system saw it as the answer to the “Indian problem.” In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) produced a report that called what happened in the institutions as “cultural genocide”. Others studies they have shown links between what they have experienced inside their walls with mental health problems and addictions. Not only in former students, but also in their descendants.
Many parents did not hear from the children they sent to boarding schools. “The news from Kamloops has been very painful, especially for people who had a double experience in boarding schools: having been a student and having lost a relative,” says Saganash. Born in 1961 in Waswanipi, a Cree village reservation located in Quebec, Saganash graduated as a lawyer and worked in local political structures. Between 2011 and 2019, he was a federal deputy for the New Democratic Party. Saganash has that double experience in the centers. “Jonnish, the oldest of my brothers, was taken to boarding school at the age of five. Apparently, he passed away months later. My mother did not know for four decades where he was buried. One of my sisters, who is a journalist, did a story one day near a former boarding school in Ontario. There he met a former nurse from the center; she showed him Jonnish’s grave, “he says.
The TRC established in 2019 that at least 4,134 minors died in these institutions. Other experts estimate that the number is over 6,000. According to the commission, half of the deaths were due to tuberculosis, although after diseases the number of deaths also increased: rheumatic fever ended the life of Jonnish Saganash. University of Toronto Specialists they documented that poor diet in boarding schools damaged the immune system of many children and multiplied the rates of diabetes and obesity in later generations. Other deaths were from fires and suicides, or from hypothermia and drowning while trying to escape. However, the causes remain a mystery in various cases.
Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indian Relations, noted on June 2 that $ 27 million remains to be used to find, identify and commemorate missing children. He also stated that communities will have access to these resources urgently. The provinces of Alberta and Ontario announced that they will fund work in their areas. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, warned in the newspaper The Globe and Mail that charging indigenous peoples with the responsibility of conducting investigations is against the law. “Communities do not investigate their own genocide, that is crazy,” he said.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians to indigenous groups for damages from internees. Ottawa disbursed $ 3.23 billion in compensation and legal expenses. Other voices again ask the Vatican to apologize for its role in these institutions, where seven out of ten were run by Catholics, including that of Kamloops. The Anglican and Presbyterian authorities have already done the same.
In May 2017, Trudeau directly apologized to Pope Francis. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a letter 11 months later stating the following: “After carefully considering the request, and after an extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, [el Papa] he feels that he cannot answer personally ”. The Society of Survivors of Indigenous Internees said Wednesday that the Vatican must also provide remedies for damage caused and open files. “As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed in the decision the Catholic Church has made now and for the past few years,” Trudeau said Friday.
A group of UN special rapporteurs asks to investigate thoroughly Kanloops and each of the former internees, requesting the Vatican to join in the investigations. “Large-scale human rights violations have been committed against children of indigenous communities. It is inconceivable that Canada and the Holy See leave these heinous crimes unanswered and without full reparation, ”the United Nations document quotes.
Another of the TRC’s recommendations is to include this topic in school programs. It has been carried out, although not with the same criteria in a country where education is a provincial competence. “The work of the commission has been essential for people to be more aware. The response from the children of Kamloops has been great. Now the task is to convince the government to take action. Trudeau’s words in recent days tell me that the government is not ready to implement concrete plans. Canadians must exert pressure, ”says Saganash.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.