In Canada, like Ireland, church and state evade accountability

Unmarked mass grave in British Columbia raises familiar concerns

An unmarked mass grave of an estimated 215 children has been found at the former site of the Catholic-run Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The bodies represent just a small number of the First Nations children removed from their parents and communities who never returned home.

Murray Sinclair, former chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), estimates that between 15,000 and 25,000 indigenous children died in the system. He cannot be more exact than that – not about numbers, names, causes of death or burial sites – because records that could help are sitting in church archives, and advocates say they are being withheld.

The residential school system, which operated from 1876 until 1996, was designed as a tool of cultural genocide – a means to “kill the Indian in the child”. John A McDonald, the first prime minister of Canada, and an architect of the Indian Act that led to the system, famously explained:

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Children were rounded up by the state, stolen from parents who loved them, and placed in hell. You can guess what happened in those institutions. Sexual abuse so endemic that, later, the Canadian government would assign survivors a points system to quantify it. Violence was as much a part of the children’s daily routine as any schoolwork. Child labour. Overcrowding. Dilapidated buildings. Neglect. Cold. Hunger. Disease. Death. For most of the history of the system, children’s bodies were not returned to their parents. Sometimes, parents were not even told their children had died.

Children were rounded up by the state, stolen from parents who loved them, and placed in hell

In 2015, the TRC’s Working Group on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials recommended that Canada assign resources to research four questions: 1. How many children died in the residential schools? 2. What did they die of? 3. Where are they buried? and 4. Who are they? According to Sinclair, Canada is no closer to answers today. This, he says, is because of resistance from the churches that ran the schools – he criticises the Catholic Church in particular – as well as from the state. The government issues apologies, it announces memorial events, even a national day of remembrance, but, Sinclair says, it makes no effort to find the children, to investigate how they died or to pursue justice for their families.

Absence of political will

Does this sound familiar? The abuse. The shocking mortality rates. The missing bodies. The wall of silence. The pain of families whose children have been buried without dignity. The professed shock of politicians, where if they had listened to survivors there could be no shock at all. The official apologies paired, barefaced, with a continued refusal to listen or act. The knowledge that this is not the only unmarked mass grave. The absence of political will to find the others. I am sure that to many Irish people this sounds very familiar indeed.

There are significant differences between Canada’s residential schools, which enacted cultural genocide, and Ireland’s mother and baby homes and industrial schools, which erased and abused the children of unmarried mothers and of the working classes. But today, in both Canada and Ireland, the children lost to these inhuman systems are refusing to stay hidden. They are forcing a reckoning. Hundreds of small bodies, found lying as if unloved, have shocked nations to attention. The placating whispers of apologists can’t withstand the testimony of those small bones.

First Nations communities want accountability. At a ceremony last Sunday at Kamloops, survivors told stories of the family members who went missing, of the powerlessness and pain when no one did anything about it. Ojibwe reporter and storyteller Tanya Talaga asks, “Where is the list of children’s names? Why didn’t the police investigate? What in God’s name are they doing now?”

Manny Jules, former chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and a survivor of the Kamloops school, calls for concrete solutions – not platitudinous talk of “healing”. He and his community want forensic analysis to investigate causes of death. They want DNA testing to reunite children with their families. Jules calls the deaths criminal and believes the Catholic Church must bear responsibility.

‘Fog and noise’

In Ireland, the Tuam Home Survivors Network has been asking for almost identical modes of accountability. In January, it called out a government hiding behind the “fog and noise” of the leaked mother and baby homes report while pushing through legislation preventing inquests into the deaths of children at Tuam. Meanwhile, the families of the missing Bessborough children have had to fight developers in court to halt building on the land where they believe their loved ones are buried.

There are people and institutions that will do everything in their power to keep these histories hidden

On Wednesday, Prof Mary Daly, a member of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, told an academic seminar that the testimonies of over 500 survivors who spoke to the commission’s confidential committee were effectively ignored in formulating the final report. This means that very little survivor testimony informed the commission’s findings .

Daly recounted that when draft reports were submitted to Catholic congregations for response, the order at Tuam claimed that the mass grave was not, in fact, as ordinance survey maps indicate, a disused structure for the management of waste water, but rather “a purpose-built vault, like those used to inter the royalty of Europe”.

Accountability, justice, truth: in Ireland as in Canada, this is what survivors of church- and state-perpetrated violence are asking for. It is what the children lying in mass graves deserve. There are people and institutions that will do everything in their power to keep these histories hidden. But as Tanya Talaga says, “It is time to find our children. Show them they are not forgotten. That they mattered and are loved.”

Emer O’Toole is associate professor of Irish performance studies at the school of Irish studies, Concordia University in Montreal