With Discovery of Unmarked Graves, Canada’s Indigenous Seek ReckoningHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, Canadian history, First Nations Peoples, Indian Residential Schools
MUSKOWEKWAN FIRST NATION, Saskatchewan — At age 6, Ken Thomas said he was put in a van, driven two hours from his home and dropped on the steps of the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School. The nuns immediately shaved off his braids, and he soon learned that whenever he spoke his Indigenous language they would wash out his mouth with soap.
During his 10 years there he experienced many more searing horrors. He recalled a friend committing suicide after being stripped naked and locked into a dorm after trying to escape. Mr. Thomas and the other boys found their friend hanging lifeless in the shower.
And like many other students, he says he saw human bones being unearthed by unsuspecting contractors connecting a water line on school grounds. Some students had gone missing and he had heard rumors that they had died and been buried there.
From the 1880s through the 1990s, the Canadian government forcibly removed at least 150,000 Indigenous children like Mr. Thomas from their homes and sent them to residential schools designed to sever them from their culture and assimilate them into Western ways — a system that a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 called “cultural genocide.” At the schools, which were mostly run by the Catholic Church, sexual, physical and emotional abuse and violence were commonplace. Thousands of children went missing.
Now Canadians are learning even more about this disturbing history. In the past four weeks, two Indigenous communities said they have discovered hundreds of unmarked graves of children who may have died at the schools of disease or neglect, or even been killed. And the revelation has stoked a new resolve among Indigenous groups to hold the country accountable for its brutal past, and increased pressure on the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to put in place the 94 recommendations of the commission.
It is also potentially changing the way Canadians think about their history.
Jim Miller, history professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, said that since 1983, when he began studying the residential school system, public awareness of the history outside of Indigenous communities has periodically risen, only to ebb again.
He said that since the recent discoveries of unmarked graves, interest has been markedly strong, and that he had never seen a time when it was “this intense or widespread.”
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