Indigenous leaders have called for investigations into every residential school site in the country
The prime minister’s comments were made on Monday as Indigenous leaders called for an inquiry into every former residential school site across the nation, the Associated Press reports.
The schools were used to house and educate children taken from Indigenous families throughout Canada.
A ground-penetrating radar was used to inspect a site at the Kamloops Indian Resident School – the largest in the country – where investigators discovered the remains of 215 children, some as young as three.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation from British Columbia described the revelation as “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented.”
Mr Trudeau said he was “appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities.”
“Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident,” he said. ”We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality – a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it. Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged or not returned at all.”
The residential school system operated from the 19th century into the 1970’s, during which more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attended the state-funded Christian schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society.
As part of the schooling, the children were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their native languages.
Many of the children reported being beaten and verbally abused, and an estimated 6,000 are believed to have died while attending the schools.
In 2008, the Canadian government apologised for the programme and admitted that sexual and physical abuse was rampant at the schools. Many students reported losing touch with their parents and ethnic customs while away from their families.
Leaders from Indigenous groups say that the abuse experienced by the children at these schools is a major contributing factor to the epidemic levels of alcoholism and drug use experienced on reservations.
The Canadian government set flags at half-staff to mourn the children who died, and Mr Trudeau said he will be conferring with ministers to determine further action to support the survivors of the schools.
Further investigations are planned at the Kamloops site. Forensics experts will be called in to identify and return the remains of the children to their families.
Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the opposition New Democrat party, called for an immediate debate in parliament over the discovery.
He said the discovery was “not a surprise” and that it was the “reality of residential schools.”
“215 Indigenous kids were found in an unmarked mass grave,” he said. ”Anytime we think about unmarked mass graves, we think about a distant country where a genocide has happened. This is not a distant country.”
The Kamloops school was in operation between 1890 and 1969, when Canada’s federal government took control of the school from the Catholic Church and used it as a day school until its permanent closure in 1978.