Opinion: Why All Unmarked Graves At Residential Schools Should Be Excavated

Posted By Jeanette Centeno February 1st, 2022 Last Updated on: February 2nd, 2022

The discovery of 93 potential gravesites on the grounds of a former British Columbia residential school in Canada, unveils yet another dark chapter for the government, Catholic Church and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their disturbing pattern of violence and cover-ups. The announcement brings the total number of unmarked graves in Canada that have been discovered since May to more than 1,350. The only way forward is to excavate all unmarked graves at residential schools.

The St. Josephs’s Mission Residential School, which operated from 1891 to 1981, was responsible for the deaths of possibly hundreds of indigenous children. According to William Lakes First Nations chief and council, Willie Sellers, the investigation led them to the darkest recesses of human behavior. Children died of exposure, starvation, disease, while others ran away. Yet, survivors and families have not seen justice or closure.

Countless innocent children at St. Josephs’ Mission Residential School were starved, raped and tortured. And the systemic murder of infants and children took a heavy toll on survivors. Despite numerous accounts, the RCMP coldly dismissed the victims and survivors as “only Indians.” Reports from the investigation confirmed bodies disposed of carelessly nearby rivers, lakes, woods or the school incinerator. Similar accounts of other survivors from other residential schools have likewise surfaced.

The US and Canadian governments do not acknowledge their responsibility in the atrocities committed against indigenous people, particularly children. And the lack of responsibility and acknowledgment of the Catholic Church has only exacerbated the issue. There are over 150,000 children and survivors that deserve respect and closure.

As of 2022, no priest or nun served time for their crimes. The numbers will continue to grow, and a slightly renewed interest from local governments is not enough to close this ugly chapter in history. Recording the stories is not enough and all unmarked graves at residential schools should be excavated; however, this is an ongoing discussion among many elders and tribal leaders.

The grounds are a crime scene and should be treated as such. Residential schools are a grim reminder of the past. Many Canadian and American citizens lack a certain awareness of indigenous crimes and issues because mainstream media refuse to report them.

Some argue the disturbing allegations never happened, but our elders, family, and survivors know the truth. You have St. Joseph's Mission Residential School, The Mohawk Institute, Kamloops Residential School, William Lake First Nations (which also went by the name Cariboo Indian Industrial School) all have answers. The only way to know for sure is to exhume the remains.

Chief Willie Sellers, like many other tribal elders, is aware the investigation will reopen old wounds. The information provided by the survivors is vital, but forensically it will be impossible to identify everybody. Sadly, records and accounts of decades ago were destroyed in an attempt to silence survivors and erase the neglect, abuse, and deaths that occurred on their campuses. The Catholic Church, the federal government, and RCMP all had a hand in covering up the past.

The suppression of information does not negate the past. The government and the Catholic Church are currently under pressure to provide records, resources and support for survivors. Documents will be released to the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation.

For support for residential school survivors, please contact the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or www.irsss.ca.

Featured image credit: A screenshot of a map of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, a former Residential School in British Columbia. The speaker explained: “This map depicts the entire phase and one investigation area. The area outlined in yellow shows the originally identified investigation area, and the area outlined in orange shows the expanded investigation area based on initial survivor interviews and archival material. The area completed to date is represented in solid red in the map above.”

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About Jeanette Centeno

Jeanette Centeno (Taíno) is a nurse with 18 years of experience, ranging from Spinal Cord Injury patients to case management. She is committed to advocating for adequate healthcare and proper intervention for all people. Centeno currently works at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, one of the leading acute care hospitals in treating Spinal Cord Injury.

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