Anger after nearly 200 unmarked graves found at Indigenous school in Canada

Another 182 unmarked graves were discovered in a third former Indigenous residential school in Canada when two Catholic churches went up in flames on Wednesday, fueling anger over the exploding abuse scandal.

The Lower Kootenay Band said experts who used ground-penetrating radar maps found the remains of students ages seven to 15 at the former St Eugene’s Mission School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.

Some graves are as shallow as three to four feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters), it said. They are believed to be the remains of members of bands of the Ktunaxa nation, including the Lower Kootenay, and neighboring indigenous communities.

The Catholic Church operated the school on behalf of the federal government from 1912 to the early 1970s.

The grim development follows the discovery of 215 children’s remains in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May and 751 more unmarked graves at another school in Marieval, Saskatchewan, last week.

Speaking at a news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said these “horrific discoveries” have forced Canadians “to reflect on the historical and ongoing injustices faced by indigenous peoples”.

He urged everyone to participate in reconciliation while denouncing vandalism and arson of churches across the country.

“The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and must stop,” he said. “We must work together to correct past mistakes. Everyone has a role to play.”

Early in the morning, two churches went up in flames amid growing calls for a papal apology for abuses in Canada’s residential schools.

Police said the fires at Morinville Church north of Edmonton, Alberta and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church on Sipekne’katik First Nation near Halifax in Nova Scotia are under investigation as possible arson.

“We are investigating it as suspicious,” Corporal Sheldon Robb of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told AFP, speaking of the fire that destroyed Morinville’s church.

Corporal Chris Marshall of the Nova Scotia RCMP said the same about the fire that severely damaged St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church.

The fires brought to eight the number of churches across Canada that have been destroyed or damaged by suspected fires in recent days, most of them in Indigenous communities.

Several others were destroyed, including with red paint.

‘Cultural genocide’

Officially, no direct link has been established between the church fires and the discovery of the unmarked graves.

But speculation is rampant amid intense anger and grief caused by the grave finds.

“We absolutely recognize the profound effect the discoveries of the unmarked graves have had on First Nations people, and researchers will keep that in mind,” Marshall said.

The damaged churches were built a century ago, coinciding with the opening of 139 boarding schools set up to assimilate indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream.

Until the 1990s, some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youth were forcibly enrolled in the schools, where students were physically and sexually abused by principals and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

More than 4,000 died of illness and neglect in the schools, according to a commission of inquiry that concluded Canada had committed “cultural genocide.”

Trudeau last Friday apologized for “harmful government policies” and joined a chorus of indigenous leaders who asked Pope Francis to do the same for abuses in the schools.

The flag atop parliament has been lowered to commemorate the deaths of the students and will fly at half-mast during Canada’s national holiday on July 1, he said Wednesday.

National Assembly Head of First Nations Perry Bellegarde said that “each of the (grave) sites should be properly investigated.” More cemeteries have been started or are planned.

He also renewed the call for the Pope to apologize directly on Canadian soil to former students, the so-called residential school survivors in Canada.

Their experiences, he said, have “caused intergenerational trauma that is felt to this day.”

He added that it was important for the Pope to “talk directly to the survivors here” to bring about “healing and reconciliation”.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 tribes in Saskatchewan, meanwhile, noted that the church had yet to fulfill its promise to provide Can $25 million (US$20 million) in compensation to former students.

The church has so far raised and handed over a paltry $34,650 Can, it said in a statement.

“For Catholics to raise millions to build multiple multi-million dollar cathedrals and raise only $34,650 or $0.30 per survivor is shameful,” the FSIN said in a statement.


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