Canada is still reeling after the public revelation that there were remains of hundreds of children buried at Catholic boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate the country’s indigenous peoples.
Nearly six months later, the indigenous community of Kamloops, which has become symbolic of the scandal, is still struggling to heal as it continues the search for other remains and tries to identify the victims.
For the first time since May, when the remains of more than 200 children were uncovered at the British Columbia school, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc community on Monday.
“Old wounds have been opened" in the past few months, the community’s Chief Rosanne Casimir told AFP.
The revelation of the graves was a gut-wrenching confirmation for the indigenous communities, who have testified for years about the thousands of children who disappeared while staying at the boarding schools.
In recent months, more than 1,000 anonymous graves have been found near former Catholic Indian residential schools, shedding light on a dark chapter in Canadian history and its policy of forced assimilation of First Nations people.
“There were a lot of abuses and hunger" at the Kamloops school, the largest in the country, Evelyn Camille, a school survivor, told AFP. The 82-year-old community elder choked back tears as she spoke.
In total, some 150,000 Indian, Metis and Inuit children were enrolled from the late 1800s to the 1990s in 139 of the residential schools across Canada, spending months or years isolated from their families, language and culture. Thousands never returned home.
A truth and reconciliation commission concluded in 2015 the failed government policy amounted to “cultural genocide."
- ‘Just now’ come to light -
But Casimir says there are still many unanswered questions. “Why hasn’t the government done anything before?" she said. “Why is it now just coming to the light? And why are people listening today?"
The Catholic Church has apologized to Canada’s indigenous peoples for the abuses at residential schools, but indigenous leaders are still awaiting a mea culpa from the pope himself.
“If he would actually listen to our survivors and develop a response, a meaningful one, it may make a difference," said Casimir.
The indigenous community is also urging the Church and the Canadian government to share all information that could identify the children, such as school attendance records.
Camille said identifying the remains would bring peace to many families. “We believe at that time, when the children’s lives were taken, that their journey was not finished from here to there, that their spirit was still lingering with the remains," she explained.
“They’ve waited there for a long time, and now they’ve been discovered, they have to find first who they are, who they were."
The ground-penetrating radar used to confirm the location of the graves doesn’t provide details on age or time of burial. And it is likely that more graves will be found.
The archaeological work that led to preliminary results covered an area of approximately 8,000 square meters (86,000 square feet). There are 65 hectares at the Kamloops school, which closed in 1978, that still need to be analyzed