The children who never came back home….

I haven’t written a Hopebuilding post for the past two days because I am, like so many in Canada, mourning the 215 children discovered to be buried in a mass grave at the Kamloops residential school. I am heartsick, like so many others.

There is something about this discovery that has touched the heart of so many Canadians, who are putting childrens’ shoes and teddy bears on steps to art galleries, legislatures, and in front of churches, in memory of the children.

It is not that we didn’t know that thousands of children had died in these residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission told us that, some years ago. Survivors had been whispering about these deaths for a long time but it was not until the Commission hearings that these stories were shared widely in more public settings. 

But there is something about this discovery, with its specific numbers and the information that the youngest was only three, that has wrung peoples’ hearts in a way that the more factual information didn’t.

These children came from many places. The Department of Indian Affairs would round them up at the start of each school year and transport them to school, but if they died during the year, there was apparently no money to send their bodies home to their families. It doesn’t appear that, in most cases, the schools told families that their children had died. 

In US residential schools, often the childrens’ names were not recorded. Researchers call it “administrative disappearance”.

The sheer cruelty of all of this – laid out in unsparing details in the TRC report – tears at one’s heart. 

When I first went to live in Yellowknife, I was like many Canadians. I didn’t know about residential schools or how they treated students, but the massive buildings were hard to miss in small communities. And gradually I began to hear some of the stories, often told in whispers.

Not every single one of the schools was a terrible place. One of them, in Fort Smith, produced an entire generation of Northern leaders, which suggests that – run with kindness and generosity – these schools could have made a huge contribution towards creating a society where First Nations and those of us who came from elsewhere could have lived together in a way that made life better for all.

But so many of these ‘schools’ were more like prisons or concentration camps, as one blogger said this morning. The death rates were extraordinarily high – far higher than the Canadian norm, even at the time. Children died alone, without comfort, because they were kept away from their brothers and sisters even if they were all at the same school.

Especially for those of us who are parents ourselves, these stories are heartbreaking. I cannot imagine what it is like to have your child taken off to school, often over your protests, and then never return home to you – and never know why.

All across Canada, there are flags flying at half mast, one hour for each of the 215 children. And there are discussions about the next steps to be taken, to identify the children and bring them home at last.

Finding and returning all 215 – and the others who still remain to be found, at other schools – will be a huge undertaking, and it will involve even more trauma for so many, I fear. But we do know that it is now possible to do this work with accuracy, care, and respect. And we know how important it is for the families that this happen.

The International Commission on Missing Persons has been at work since 1996 on the difficult and painstaking work of identifying the missing from the terrible Bosnian war of the 1990s and returning their remains to their loved ones. By 2020, the ICMP had accounted for almost 90% of the 8000-8100 people who were reported missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica.

ICMP's Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) was formed to deal with the identification primarily of victims of 1995 Srebrenica massacre. PIP includes a facility for storing, processing, and handling exhumed remains. Much of the remains are only fragments or commingled body fragments since they were recovered from secondary mass graves. The photo depicts one section of the refrigerated mortuary.
The original uploader was Jasmin A. at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

“In an effort to DNA identify these victims, ICMP has collected blood samples from 22,160 family members of 7,773 reported victims and compared them with DNA profiles from  post mortem samples excavated from mass graves. Of the 7,040 unique profiles extracted from bone samples, 6,838 persons have now been DNA identified by ICMP.” In all, more than 70% of the 40,000 people who went missing during the terrible conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia have been accounted for. 

Since the ICMP was created in 1996, its work has increased awareness of “the need for a concerted international response to the worldwide challenge of missing persons,” and its work and capabilities have expanded accordingly.

“Since its inception in November 2001, ICMP’s missing persons DNA identification system has been the benchmark for technical innovation and performance in the field. The system complements forensic archaeological and anthropological techniques with a state-of-the-art process of DNA matching which has resulted in an exponential rise in the number and speed of identifications. ICMP has also developed the only specialized missing persons database (iDMS) to manage all data pertaining to the missing persons process. While ICMP is focused on developing and applying political and rule-of-law-based strategies to address the issue of the missing in different societies and situations around the world, it brings a unique element of technical assistance to its activities.”

In 2014, ICMP was granted a new legal status as a treaty-based international organization with its own system of governance and international capacities.

As Canada is one of the countries that has contributed to the funding of the ICMP since 1996, I do hope that the government will consider seeking out its help in finding, and returning to their families at last, all the children who never came home from residential schools.