Content warning: This article contains distressing information on Stolen Generations and residential schools.
When I read that the bodies of 215 children had been found in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Turtle Island (Canada), my heart ached for these children and the First Nation’s communities they belong to.
Weeks later, the Cowessess First Nation announced they had also found the remains of 751 people, mostly children, at the former Marieval Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar.
The residential school system in Canada was a tool of cultural genocide that worked explicitly through the forced removal of children and young people from their families. The impact of policies that enabled this to happen have been felt by generations of Métis, Inuit and First Nations peoples. The last school closed in 1996.
As the tally of bodies found in unmarked graves continues to grow, residential school survivors warn this is just the beginning.
The experiences of Indigenous children and communities in Canada are resonant with those of young First Peoples and children in Australia. These experiences also include the separation of children from their families in an attempt to assimilate and erase us as Aboriginal peoples.
Residential schools: a tool of cultural genocide
In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of [Indigenous] Affairs, stated:
I want to get rid of the Indian problem […] our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.
Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) scholar Dr Beverley Jacobs, in calling for the deaths of these children to be investigated as a crime against humanity, says:
What happened to Indigenous children is genocide, and the legacy of that continues through denial and inaction.
It’s estimated over 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada were forcibly taken from their families and interned in residential schools. These schools were established in an attempt to “civilise” and assimilate Indigenous peoples.
This process saw children taken from their families and often punished for speaking language and practising culture.
As I held my own daughter close, the uncovering of the remains of these precious children on Turtle Island prompted me to reflect on the survival of First Peoples in the face of ongoing legacies of colonial violence back here in Australia.
Indigenous child removal in Australia
The Bringing Them Home report tabled in parliament in 1997 presented a national investigation into these removals and concluded:
between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970.
Drawing on the testimonies of Stolen Generation survivors, the Report also found:
Subsequent generations continue to suffer the effects of parents and grandparents having been forcibly removed, institutionalised, denied contact with their Aboriginality and in some cases traumatised and abused.
Research revealed in 2018 374 people buried in largely unmarked graves at the site, a majority of which were children, had died of treatable respiratory and infectious diseases.
Moore River settlement was the subject of the Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence which depicted the true story of three girls who escaped the deplorable conditions at Moore River, despite the real possibility of tortuous punishment, and walked almost 2,500 kilometres north in search of their family.
While the story of Molly, Daisy and Gracie’s escape and survival in this film is exceptional, their experience of violence and removal under policies of assimilation is not. It is but one example of the way many Indigenous children and young people were, and continue to be, treated.
Seeking truth and justice
The recently inaugurated Victorian Yoo-rrook Justice Commission will shepherd Australia’s first ever formal truth telling process.
Part of Yoo-rrook’s mandate is to:
investigate both historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation by the State and non-State entities, across all areas of social, political and economic life.
This mandate also extends to establishing “an official public record based on First Peoples’ experiences of Systemic Injustice since the start of Colonisation.”
Given the focus of Yoo-rrook, it’s only a matter of time before, as Melbourne-based Ballardong/Nyoongar artist Dianne Jones’ stated in her 2013 exhibition – what lies buried rises. In making these artworks, Jones asked:
Whose crimes are subject to investigation? Whose grief constructs memorials? Whose deaths matter?
In repeating Jones’ questions here, I do not ask them of First Peoples. Rather, I share Jones’ words as a prompt for non-Indigenous, and particularly white, settler Australians. These people may not yet have an informed understanding of the violent past of this continent and how this violence continues to reverberate in the present.
These reverberations have been endured by First Peoples for centuries now.
As Yoo-rrook begins it’s important work, and First Peoples in other States and Territories continue to demand truth and justice, like in Turtle Island, what’s buried will continue to rise and demand justice.