There was recently a discovery of children who had died at a residential school, which led to protests and much media attention. This isn't a totally new discovery, though, and organizations have issued official apologies for the abuses in the Residential School system. I'm curious what the goal of the media and First Nations is in highlighting this and bringing it to the public's attention now? Is the goal just to spread the history of what happened?

  • I voted to close because this currently includes multiple question in one. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 14:11
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    Can we not close this question, please? The events merit coverage and the lack of empathy from the OP is an extremely good example of why that coverage is merited. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:24
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I disagree, this question includes multiple question in one, which is a close reason. If you want this to get coverage then you can edit it into shape. Also, the lack of empathy from the OP means nothing. This is SE, stuff is supposed to be a database for information. if you want to see empathy you can look at Reddit. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 18:16
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    @EkadhSingh I think the 2 questions are just restatements of one core question, so it can be answered in an objective way. What they mean by "lack of empathy", I think, is that it's clear that OP, and likely others who might come here, clearly don't understand the situation or why it's a big deal, and so an answer that explains that would be generally useful.
    – divibisan
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 18:29
  • @divibisan okay, understood. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 19:06

3 Answers 3


There are several layers to this. Firstly, the mission of the schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant Canadian culture, depriving them of their ancestral language and culture. They were forbidden to speak their native language, at all. That's considered very wrong by current standards, and many of the children were forcibly removed from their families and forced to attend, which is worse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described this as “cultural genocide.”

Secondly, there are way more graves than a normal death rate would imply. The school operated as a residential school from 1890 to 1978, 88 years. Its maximum enrolment was 500. So, as a very rough estimate, 5,000 children passed through the school. There were at least 215 deaths (the survey isn't finished yet), something like 4% of the pupils. That's strong evidence of serious neglect, at the very least, and there's evidence (see link above) that the children were inadequately fed, which makes it doubtful that they got proper medical care.

But it may have been worse than neglect. The number of graves raises the possibility of physical and/or sexual abuse by the school staff, and its having been run by a Roman Catholic missionary organisation that has already faced many accusations and lawsuits over abuse makes that possibility seem plausible.

Since none of the former staff of the school have come forward about the deaths, they may have taken place before the living ex-staff worked there, or there may have been a "conspiracy of silence." We can't tell at this stage.

As for the objective of publicising this, there are at least two:

  • To secure the rights of Indigenous people in the future.
  • To investigate potential crimes, demonstrating that Indigenous people are now treated properly.

Addition: Another 751 unmarked graves at another residential school. And another 182 at a third. That story also reports on a series of fires at Roman Catholic churches on indigenous land in the past week.

  • I know I'm being skeptical here, but regarding the first paragraph, didn't all schools at the time teach their students to assimilate into Canadian culture? Obviously this is a view that has changed. The rest of the answer makes perfect sense to me. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 8:55
  • @commoninterest: Edited to answer that point. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 9:01
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    hum, your math is wrong. 88 x 500 is not 5000. but yes, the numbers are way off and the bodies should have been returned to the families as much as possible anyway. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:06
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: The children were at the school for more than one year each! Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 17:57
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    @EkadhSingh: The lack of food was due to lack of money. If the residential school system doesn't care enough about children to even feed them, it's doubtful that they'll go to much trouble over medical care. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 17:58

In the abstract, non-Aboriginal people in Canada have known for a long time about the residential schools. It is an extremely shameful part of our history, is taught in schools and there have rounds of indemnification paid to survivors.

Of course, First Nations people have them much more in mind than the rest of us, understandably so.

in what ways did the residential schools significantly differ from the other boarding schools at the time

The abuses inflicted - beatings, sexual abuse, malnourishment, cultural suppression - were both horrific and ultimately were inflicted by agents acting on behalf of the federal government, even if only cultural suppression was official policy, so the insensitivity of your remark is rather striking. Some even claim the malnourishment was intentional and government sanctioned.

To quote a 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In media interviews, TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has also revealed that the TRC has documented the deaths of over 6,000 residential school students as a result of their school experience, adding that there are probably more. It appears more about the number will await a later commission report.

Those 6,000 deaths put the odds of dying in Canadian residential schools over the years they operated at about the same as for those serving in Canada's armed forces during the Second World War.

So, now, in 2021, while we somewhat thought we had taken steps to acknowledge and address those past abuses, this is what happens:

  • A mass grave is found, which moves from the abstract to very much the horrific concrete. Correct me if I find your question offensive, but mass graves are a "big deal" everywhere, are they not? And especially, especially, those of children.

  • This discovery is made, not during investigations undertaken by the Federal government, but rather had to be arranged by a historically-affected First Nations band. It wasn't found in some remote place, it happened right on a well-known residential school location, near a quite touristic town and no one had bothered to look.

  • 215 bodies, in one location, seems a lot. Certainly the overall estimates should be revisited and thorough investigations should be carried out (to be clear: at all sites suspected to have unmarked graves, not just this school). Forensics may be arranged to understand causes of death if the families agree to it.

As a nation, we can only attempt to fix things by understanding the past and confronting it head on.

Does this answer your question?

Addendum (though not in original question)

"But this embarrasses Canada"

Yes, it does. However, while I don't believe reputational risk should be a primary consideration in how to proceed, let's look at the alternatives.

Germany, Japan and the Roman Catholic Church have reacted differently to their past deeds. Looking at results, it is clear that people recognize that countries and organizations are multi-generational, that not everyone may have participated in crimes back then and that the people doing the apologizing in the present are not those who committed the crimes in the past. This is especially true if organizational continuity is acknowledged.

However, it is also clear that half-hearted, grudging apologies and attempts to distance themselves in order to salvage a reputation have the opposite effect on world opinion. Most of all, people don't appreciate cover ups.

No one has forgotten what Germany did, but few people will support attacking modern Germans about it because the country assumed full responsibility and was fully transparent. It is hard to go wrong by over-apologizing and over-transparency. Contrast that with the other two on this list.

If that seems like too calculated, and self-interested, an approach, consider that people will generally feel genuine contrition once they know all the facts and will then be more likely to support laws, programs and indemnifications to correct wrongs.

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    "Mass grave" may not be an exact fit in this case. But, for a large number of undocumented, unmarked, human remains which should really have been repatriated to their parents at the time of death, it seems to me a closer match than "cemetery" or "graveyard". Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 21:56
  • "But this embarrasses Canada" this is another point I'm confused about. Why is it the federal government is bearing most of the blame (or Canadians as a whole) when several organizations were responsible for the schools? For example wouldn't it embarrass the Catholic Church the most since they were the main ones that made and ran most of the schools? Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 7:47
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    @commoninterest The Canadian government funded the schools and, at times, enforced that every single Native child had to attend such schools. Organisations like the catholic church cheerfully participated, but the scale of the abuse was only possible because the government enforced attendance.
    – user141592
    Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 11:01
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    @commoninterest OK, let's walk you through this a bit. Suppose you had a child and the federal government forced you to send him to a boarding school. Suppose that child got abused there. Would you not blame the government? Especially if that abuse was widespread at that school and other similar schools? Would you only blame the school itself? Or would you blame the government for forced enrollment? And blame the government for ignoring abuses it should have known about? Yes, the Catholic Church acted badly. So did the Anglican Church and a whole bunch of others. And the govt. Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 2:55

There was recently a terrible discovery of children who had died at a residential school. What is the goal of the media and First Nations in highlighting this and bringing it to the public's attention?

Well, the media's goal is to stay in business by reporting current events, and the First Nations' goal is, presumably, to highlight atrocities that were committed against hundreds of dead First Nations children, to investigate if there are further mass graves to be found, and seek restorative justice (e.g. the official apologies the question mentions, or perhaps some type of financial reparations). That was easy, give us a hard one next time.

Apologies for being facetious, but your question is framed so oddly, and as posed the answers are so self-evident (you even mention some of the obvious ones in asking it, so you're clearly capable of coming up with them yourself), that I'm tempted to engage in a little mind-reading about your "real" question.

It seems to me that a more bluntly worded version would go something along the lines of:

Given that the practices of the school at which this mass grave was found (!) were pretty normal for the time period, why are the media and the First Nations seeking to exploit dead children from the distant past to push a defamatory narrative about Canadian culture and institutions being inherently racist?

Let me turn the question around for a second and ask, what would be the motivation to sweep this mass grave of indigenous children under the rug and pretend it's not there? Especially because historical injustices can have ongoing repercussions, it seems to me that this is a long overdue accounting of something that really was swept under the rug all too successfully for many years. From that same Reuters article:

Between 1831 and 1996, Canada's residential school system forcibly separated children from their families, subjecting them to abuse, malnutrition and rape in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with investigating the system called "cultural genocide" in 2015.

Anyway, the mass grave, far from being an outrage du jour cooked up by tendentious journalists and race hustlers, simply puts an exclamation point on what has been known for decades to be a horrendously abusive and racist residential school system. Leaving out the fact that this mass grave is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle would essentially be a lie by omission.

Although I don't want to put words in OP's mouth, it seems to me that the purpose of the original question is to minimize the seriousness and badness of the new developments in this ongoing situation, in a way that implicitly suggests that reporting on this mass grave is a bigger problem than the mass grave itself. Given that the question itself implicitly accuses the media and the First Nations of blowing the situation out of proportion, solely by virtue of reporting on it and seeking to investigate further, it's hard to imagine any news coverage of this situation that OP would approve of (other than, obviously, an editorial saying it's all been blown out of proportion).

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