Canada to help indigenous search for more student graves

Justin Trudeau, shown here in Ottawa on April 20, 2020, said he was "appalled" by the historic practice of removing indigenous children from their families
Justin Trudeau, shown here in Ottawa on April 20, 2020, said he was "appalled" by the historic practice of removing indigenous children from their families Dave Chan AFP/File
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Ottawa (AFP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged Monday more support for indigenous communities, including to expand excavations at old boarding schools across Canada after remains of 215 indigenous children were discovered at one location.

"As a dad, I can't imagine what it would feel like to have my kids taken away from me," Trudeau told a news conference. "And as prime minister, I am appalled by the shameful policy that stole indigenous children from their communities."

"Think of their communities that never saw them again. Think of their hopes, their dreams, their potential, of all they would have accomplished, all they would have become," he said. "All of that was taken away."

Trudeau said he would speak with his ministers in the afternoon to shore up "next and further things we need to do to support (residential school) survivors and the community."

Excavating school burial sites, he said, "is an important part of discovering the truth."

"Canada will be there to support indigenous communities as we discover the extent of this trauma and trying to give opportunities for families and communities to heal."

The local Tk'emlups te Secwepemc tribe said last week it had used ground-penetrating radar to confirm the remains of the students who attended a school near Kamloops, British Columbia.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest of 139 boarding schools set up in the late 19th century to assimilate Canada's indigenous peoples, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time.

It was operated by the Catholic church on behalf of the Canadian government from 1890 to 1969, before Ottawa took over its administration and closed it a decade later.

Official records showed only 50 deaths at the school.

As the nation mourned, flags atop government buildings were lowered to half mast over the weekend.

On Monday, opposition parties asked for -- and Trudeau agreed to -- an emergency debate in parliament on the "heart-breaking" discovery.

Some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youngsters in total were forcibly enrolled in these schools, where students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

Today those experiences are blamed for a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as high suicide rates, in indigenous communities.

A truth and reconciliation commission has identified the names of, or information about, at least 4,100 children who died from abuse or neglect while attending a residential school. It estimates the actual toll is much higher.

The commission concluded in a 2015 report that more than a century of abuses at the schools amounted to "cultural genocide."

Seven years earlier, Ottawa had formally apologized as a part of a Can$1.9 billion (US$1.5 billion) settlement with former students.