In May, Canadians were shocked at the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former school in British Columbia. The bodies belonged to Indigenous children, some believed to be as young as three years old, who went through Canada’s state-sponsored “residential school” system. The schools, scattered across the country, were aimed at eradicating the culture and languages of the country’s Indigenous populations.
The findings have brought the world’s renewed attention to this shameful chapter of Canadian history, left deep wounds in hundreds of communities and sparked fresh demands for justice aimed at the Canadian government and the churches that ran the schools for decades.
In 2015, the truth and reconciliation commission, which collected thousands of hours of testimony from survivors, determined that the residential school systems had amounted to a “cultural genocide” of Indigenous people. The federal government formally apologised for the schools in 2008, but the recent discoveries of graves have prompted calls for an independent investigation, including the possibility of criminal charges against the government and the Catholic church.
The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has pledged to take “concrete action” to help Indigenous communities in their searches, but the costs are expected to far exceed money offered by the government. A previous request of $1.5m in funding to search for the graves was denied by the federal government in 2009. Meanwhile, as the searches continue, the number of unmarked graves – and those who died attending the schools – is only expected to rise.
Sources and methodology
Indian residential schools dataset: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba
Native land claims dataset: native-land.ca
Historical Treaties dataset: canada.ca
St Eugene mission pictures: Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre
Journey animations are based on survivors’ testimonies; the Guardian reconstructed the journeys using Google Maps. Distances provided are approximate
Recent discoveries of mass graves have shed new light on the country’s troubled colonial legacy