“So why is it important to understand the history of genocide in Canada? Because it’s not history. Today’s racist government laws, policies and actions have proven to be just as deadly for Indigenous peoples as the genocidal acts of the past.”

 –Pamela Palmater, Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, activist, and politician

The churches and European settlers brought with them the assumption that their own civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement. That everyone else was a ‘savage’ needing to be ‘civilized’. The residential school system is widely considered a form of genocide because of the purposeful attempt from the government and church to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous cultures and life.2

From the 1870s to the 1990s, residential schools were part of a systematic federal policy to assimilate Indigenous children into European culture, based on racist assumptions that their own cultures were inferior. Children were separated from their parents and lived in poorly funded schools where federal- or church-run staffs punished them for speaking their own languages. Physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and disease were common. There were 138 residential schools reviewed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the last of which closed in Saskatchewan in 1996.3

Residential school survivors pressed the government and churches for compensation and apologies, a process that led to a $2-billion settlement by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) in 2006 and the creation of the TRC. Its final report in 2015, based on interviews with more than 6,000 witnesses, said the schools amounted to cultural genocide and are inseparable from the present-day problems Indigenous people face, from high rates of poverty, suicide and incarceration to the loss of Indigenous lands and traditions. The intergenerational trauma of the schools is ongoing and significant at the linguistic, economic and cultural level.3

From the 1990s onward, the government and the churches involved—Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Roman Catholic—began to acknowledge their responsibility for an education scheme that was specifically designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology in Parliament for the damage done by the residential school system. Despite this and other apologies, however, the effects remain.2

Additionally, despite the TRC proposing, among other things a study to identify unmarked graves. The federal government initially denied the C$1.5m ($1.2m) needed to conduct this work, but in 2019 approved C$33.8m over three years for a “national residential school student death register” and an online registry of residential school cemeteries. Lack of progresses in finding unmarked graves was slow due to the lack of funding but the findings at Kamloops over the Victoria Day weekend will be the first of many as this reckoning begins and there is a renewed push for significant reform.4

The Kamloops Indian Residential School built on the territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation operated from 1890 to 1969, mostly under a Catholic order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, but the federal government ran it as a day school for nine more years before it closed in 1978.

There were only 51 recorded deaths from 1914 – 1963 but the Tk’emlups community have been trying for 20 years to find more suspected missing children. They succeeded over the Victorian Day weekend with ground penetrating radar when 215 bodies of children found buried in unmarked graves.

Even more recently, an additional 751 bodies have been found in unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School, which operated from 1899 to 1997 where the Cowessess First Nation is now located, about 85 miles (135 kilometres) east of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. This is not distant history – it happened to people in living memory and this finding is just the tip of the iceberg.5

Lawmakers and First Nation groups have been calling for all former residential schools across Canada to be examined for unmarked graves. As Terry Teegee the regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations said: "It's really important, as part of a healing journey, to acknowledge and understand how many of our children perished in the schools." For true reconciliation the truth needs to be told. 6

The TRC’s calls to action include “the absolute necessity for education about this aspect of Canadian history.” To truly take steps towards reconciliation requires all Canadians to recognize the ideas and structures that created the residential schools in the first place, and to rise against these outdated and deeply oppressive ways of thinking.7

What can we do from here on out?

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) recommends the following actions

     Continuous PUBLIC PRESSURE for article 58. Since The Roman Catholic Church simply will not make a commitment to its direct involvement in these atrocities because, I would argue, it's terrified of the financial and legal consequences if it does.8

    “Church Apologies and Reconciliation 58. We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

The survivor’s society has issued calls to action, similar to the TRC, aimed at both the federal government and the Catholic Church. That includes an acknowledgement from the Pope.


1, National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada) et al. 2019, 53.

2, https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/

3, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-kamloops-residential-school-mass-graves-215-children-explainer/

4, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/24/1009784025/hundreds-of-unmarked-graves-found-at-another-indigenous-school-in-canada 

5, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/canada-pressured-find-all-unmarked-indigenous-graves-after-children-s-n1269456

6, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/canada-pressured-find-all-unmarked-indigenous-graves-after-children-s-n1269456

7, https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/the-road-to-reconciliation/

8, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/rci/en/news/1797759/survivors-faith-leaders-call-on-catholic-church-to-take-responsibility-for-residential-schools

Author: Danielle Le Vay Kriger, Content Manager | Isobar Canada