The Discovery of More Unmarked Graves Raises Difficult Questions for Canada

On Thursday 24 June, Chief Cadmusn Delmore of the Cowessess First Nation announced over 750 unmarked graves had been discovered at one of Canada’s former re-education sites for Indigenous children. The Marieval Indian Residential School (Cowessess) was operational in the province of Saskatchewan from 1899 to 1997.

After last month’s discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the historic Kamloops Indian Residential school of British Columbia, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about being reminded of ‘a dark and shameful chapter’ in his country’s history. Thirty-six Prime-ministerial tweets later-with discovered unmarked graves since surpassing a thousand and proposed spending for further excavation reaching the millions- this ‘reminder’ is one which refuses to go away.

The Canadian residential school is perhaps more than a single ‘chapter’ in Canada’s history. In 1876, nine years after the state became self-governing, the passing of The Indian Act commenced a systematic control of Indigenous people through residential schools which would last for over a century. By the final school’s closure in 1996, nationwide projects funded by the government and run by members of the Catholic church had overseen the forced separation of over 150,000 children from their families and culture.

Forced to routinely perform non-traditional labour and only speak English, the impacts on Indigenous cultures are lasting. Over two-thirds of the 70 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada are now considered endangered by UNESCO.

Yet, in the excavation of child victims, is a starker reminder of human suffering. Abuse was common and frequently taken to harrowing extremes by workers at the schools. In a 2017 Aljazeera documentary, survivors Bud Whiteye and Denalda recounted experiencing rape and witnessing violent murder during their time at the Mohawk Institute, one of the hundreds of residential schools yet to be excavated. Such accounts emphasise the individual traumas which underpin every figure, of which the quantities are startling. 

Between 2008 and 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada received testimonies from 7,000 Indigenous victims. Beyond confirming widespread and lasting suffering, the TRC’s report documented the deaths of over 6,000 children at the schools. Disputed by survivors at the time, recent excavations continue to contradict this figure. Nearly 1,300 schools remain unexcavated. Estimations reach as high as 70,000 for the true number of deaths.

Canada’s Residential schools follow a far larger pattern of institutional child abuse which crossed groups and borders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whilst an Irish Governmental report in 2009 revealed over 60 years of abuse and rape in Catholic institutions between the 1930s and 1990s, in 2016 investigators from the University of South Florida found an additional 55 unmarked graves on the site of the former Arthur G Dozier Reform School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Clearly, past warnings continue to make themselves known.

Yet, as institutional abuse and state-sponsored ‘re-education’ persist on the world stage, these warnings are perhaps underacknowledged. In the case of Canada, Whiteye believes it will take generations to work out, “until the guy next door knows what happened”. Perhaps for now, to paraphrase the 1976 writing of Kurt Vonnegut, history remains merely as a list of surprises which only prepare us to be surprised again.

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Hamish Davis

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November 2021
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