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Indigenous child graves discovery pressures Canada to search for more — and search its soul

Canada has been dealt a somber reminder of one of the darkest chapters of its history over the past week.

The remains of 215 children were found buried in unmarked graves at a former residential school, one of more than 150 institutions in a now-defunct system that for well over a century forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families to assimilate them into Canadian society.

The discovery sent shockwaves through the nation, prompting communities from coast to coast to lower their flags to half-mast and hold moments of silence in honor of the children. From Vancouver to Ottawa, children’s shoes, toys and candles have been left at makeshift memorials.

June 1, 202100:27

Now, lawmakers and First Nations groups are calling for all former residential schools across Canada to be examined for signs of unmarked graves.

For decades, residential school survivors have been telling “horror” stories of children disappearing without a trace, British Columbia Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee told NBC News on the phone from Prince George, British Columbia.

“Finding these 215 children just confirms those stories,” Teegee said. “It’s really important, as part of a healing journey, to acknowledge and understand how many of our children perished in the schools.”

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The school where the remains were found is in the small town of Kamloops, about 160 miles northwest of Vancouver. The biggest residential school in Canada, it operated under the auspices of the Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969. After that, the Canadian government took over and oversaw the school until it closed in 1978. Enrollment peaked in the early 1950s at 500. There are official records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1900 and 1971.

The graves, discovered with ground-penetrating radar earlier this month, are believed to be undocumented, according to Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, who announced the discovery on May 27.

Some of the children buried are believed to have been as young as three, Casimir said.

They acted on a “knowing in our community” to look for the unmarked graves, she added.

In the wake of the discovery, Teegee is among a growing chorus of First Nations leaders calling for more former residential schools to be searched.

“It’s part of the truth telling in terms of true reconciliation,” he said. “We need to know and understand where these children are.”

People gather and shoes are left in recognition of the discovery of more than 200 children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.Jason Franson / AP

While the sheer number of child remains found in Kamloops is shocking, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and is by no means an isolated incident, Linc Kesler, director of the University of British Columbia’s First Nations House of Learning, said. He also supports the calls for examinations of other former residential school grounds, saying the full acknowledgement of this part of Canada’s history is “absolutely requisite.”

“If this has taken place at the Kamloops Indian residential school, there is no reason not to believe that it happened right across the country,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told local TV station Global BC. “I think we have not heard the worst of this.”

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were required to attend the state-funded residential schools between 1831 and 1996. Many never came home.

In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared that the residential schools played a central role in Canada’s “cultural genocide” of Indigenous people.

The schools were designed to force First Nations children to assimilate into Canadian society. Children were taken from their homes and communities, and students were harshly punished for speaking their own languages, according to Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation. The schools were often underfunded and overcrowded, and staff were not held accountable for how they treated the children. Thousands of students suffered physical and sexual abuse, the center said.

The commission identified more than 4,100 children who died while in residential schools, but the true number of victims may never be known due to incomplete or missing records.

A week after the announcement of the remains’ discovery in Kamloops, the story continues to dominate Canadian headlines.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news of the discovery in Kamloops broke his heart, while Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said Canadians are now “confronted with the truth.”

“Sadly this is not an exception, or an isolated incident,” Trudeau said Monday.

People gather in recognition of the discovery of more than 200 children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.Jason Franson / AP

Asked if he would commit federal funding to future research and excavations at residential schools across Canada, Trudeau said some money has already been allocated for initiatives around residential school cemeteries in previous budgets, but said “there will be more that we will do,” without elaborating.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada told NBC News in an email Tuesday that nearly $34 million has been earmarked in 2019 over three years to support efforts to continue building a register of residential school students deaths and support the work of communities in locating, memorializing and commemorating the children who died while at the schools.

On Wednesday, Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the Church and the Pope should apologize to the victims of the residential schools. Miller said it’s “shameful” that an apology hasn’t been offered before.

But examining more former residential schools could come with a string of challenges.

Access to former residential schools could present major obstacles, with many now having been sold off, repurposed or re-developed.

Of the over 150 schools that were open in Canada, fewer than 20 have buildings that are still standing or partially standing, according to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. Access to these sites varies a great deal, and can create barriers to research, Turpel-Lafond told NBC News in an email.

Then, there is the issue of missing or incomplete records, which would be essential for identifying the remains and understanding how the children may have died.

Turpel-Lafond said the inadequacy of the records is evidenced by some of names recorded simply as “Indian Girl No. 237,” with no first or last name. Misspelling of cultural names, assigning new names in English and French or providing anglicized versions of names resulted in records that are difficult to navigate, she added.

Lorelei Williams places one of 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.Darryl Dyck / AP

Finally, there is an issue of how to deal with the unmarked graves.

Turpel-Lafond is calling on the Canadian government to appoint a special rapporteur to bring international standards to Canada when it comes to mass burial sites.

“Mass graves are a legacy of conflict and human rights violations in other parts of the world — such as Srebrenica, Bosnia and Iraq,” she said. “We need to show survivors that we take this discovery seriously, and treat it with respect.”

Kesler said the United Nations could play a significant role through its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to bring attention to the deaths and “really add to the demand for accountability.”

The U.N. Human Rights Office said in an email to NBC News on Thursday that Canadian authorities should ensure “prompt and exhaustive investigations” into the deaths of Indigenous children and “redouble efforts” to find them, including by searching unmarked graves.

The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops is still working with a radar specialist to complete the survey of the school grounds. They expect a full report by mid-June.

Chief Casimir told Canadian public broadcaster CBC on Sunday that there will be a debrief with the nation’s membership this week, adding that other chiefs across Canada are having similar conversations with their communities as well.

“We’re all grieving,” Casimir told the network. “There’s so many unanswered questions that our membership wants. The world wants to know.”