The remains of 215 children were found in an unmarked mass grave on the grounds of a former school. It is the kind of atrocity one would expect to read about in a news story by a correspondent covering the war in Syria or the aftermath of an ISIS attack on a town in Iraq.
But it is not. It happened in Canada, a result of a systemic effort amounting to genocide that had a singular aim – to wipe out indigenous culture. And it continued to within living memory.
The discovery was announced late last week by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, which was investigating the site of a former residential school in British Columbia using groundbreaking radar technology – work that began around 20 years ago. More than 130 residential schools existed in Canada under a system that began in the late 1800s, with the last one closed down as recently as 1996.
The purpose of residential schools was to enforce the assimilation of indigenous and First Nations children into white western culture and to sever their links to their heritage and communities by forcibly separating them from their parents and confining them in far-off boarding schools, their fates often unknown even to their closest family members.
There, they suffered myriad abuses and cruelty. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which was established in 2008 and aims to preserve the reality of residential schools by gathering the testimony of thousands of survivors and witnesses, estimates that around 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children went through the system and 4,100 died on their premises. As many as 6,000 children went missing, their fates unknown. It concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.
The news of the discovery of the mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School was met with a wave of sorrow, mourning and horror in Canada. Profound mass crimes are often hard for us to grasp – their horror seems remote and impersonal, and we are inoculated against their scale, their gravity and the human capacity for cruelty, with statistics telling us nothing about the lives and dreams that were destroyed.
But when these crimes are personified through the drowning of a small child on the Mediterranean shores or the discovery of a mass grave on the grounds of a school, the scale of the horror comes rushing in on us in waves that incapacitate first, then lead to grief and anger. I was shaken seeing images of some of the impromptu memorials online – little shoes that looked like something my two-year-old son would wear lined up to memorialise all those little lives that were stolen.
The Canadian government has apologised in the past for the residential schools and pledged greater assistance for survivors. Efforts to uncover more suspected burial grounds will surely accelerate. I can’t imagine the pain of the families of these children nor what closure this will bring them. Whenever I try to imagine it, I am paralysed, as though my mind is shutting down in defence against contemplating such grief.
I have always thought that the path to peace in our part of the world can only come through truth and justice, followed by reconciliation. I don't otherwise know how people who have lost their homes, loved ones, communities and nations could ever live together if those who perpetrated their trauma and suffering continue to walk free. How do you reconcile and live on if some semblance of justice and closure is not served?
It is clear from the tragedy of the residential schools, though, that the path of accountability and truth-seeking is a long and winding one, a peeling away of layers and layers of humanity’s failings, a herculean effort to build a clearer, less varnished mirror to hold up to ourselves. And even decades may not heal all the wounds. How could it? At best, it may blunt the pain.
When we look into the mirror, though, what do we see? It is not enough to see the past for what it truly was, but also to pledge not to repeat its mistakes, to recognise that underneath the civilised veneer of modern existence, of technology and art and culture and machinery and industry and ethics and human rights and enlightenment values, democracy even, only a thin line separates our better angels and our worst demons. That for all our talk of human dignity, opportunity, diversity, egalitarianism and compassion, we are never far away from tyranny, brutality and snatching children away from their parents to “civilise” them, whether we are white westerners or any other skin tone.
After all, 1996 was not so long ago.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National